Mortal Storm (1940): Hollywood’s Anti-Nazi Film

Based on the 1938 novel The Mortal Storm by the British writer Phyllis Bottome, The Mortal Storm was one of the few anti-Nazi movies Hollywood  made before the American entry into World War II, in December 1941.

The film stars Jimmy Stewart as a German who refuses to join the rest of his small Bavarian town in supporting Nazism. He falls in love with Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan), the daughter of a “non-Aryan” father.

It was the last movie Sullavan and Stewart made together, following their successful appearance in Three Comrades.

The supporting cast is superlative, including Robert Young, Robert Stack, Frank Morgan, Dan Dailey, Ward Bond, Maria Ouspenskaya, William T. Orr, and Bonita Granville (the first actress to play Nancy Drew onscreen).

Freya and her father are supposed to be Jewish, but the word “Jew” is never used, and they are only identified as “non-Aryans.” Freya’s half-brothers are members of the Nazi Party.  Moreover, though the tale is set in Germany, the name of the country is rarely mentioned except at the very beginning in the introduction.

MGM did not mention the name of the country or the religion of Freya’s family because of the German market for its films. Nonetheless, the movie upset the Nazi government and subsequently all MGM films were banned in Germany.  The score by award winning composer Bronislau Kaper, and Eugene Zador was not credited to them, but to a pseudonym, “Edward Kane”.

When the tale begins, in 1933, Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan) is a German girl engaged to a Nazi party member (Robert Young). When she realizes the nature of his political views, she breaks the engagement and turns her attention to anti-Nazi Martin Breitner (James Stewart). Her father- professor does not abide by the ideology of the new regime.  His reluctance to embrace the dominant racial leads to a boycott of his classes and later his capture and imprisonment.  His wife is permitted a brief visit in which the dying professor urges her to leave the country.

Trying to flee the Nazis, Freya and Martin attempt to ski across the border to safety in Austria. Freya is gunned down by the Nazis, under reluctant orders from her ex-fiance who has been ordered to track her down by his superiors.  Fulfilling her wish, Martin picks her up and skis into Austria so that she can die in a free country.

The acting is superb and so are the production values, including the skiing scenes (shot in Utah).  In the same year, Stewart won his first and only Best Actor Oscar for “The Philadelphia Story.”

Cast

Margaret Sullavan as Freya Roth

James Stewart as Martin Breitner

Robert Young as Fritz Marberg

Frank Morgan as Prof. Viktor Roth

Robert Stack as Otto von Rohn

Bonita Granville as Elsa

Irene Rich as Amelie Roth

William T. Orr as Erich von Rohn

Maria Ouspenskaya as Hilda Breitner

Gene Reynolds as Rudi Roth

Russell Hicks as Rector of University

William Edmunds as Lehman, University Doorman

Esther Dale as Marta, the Roths’ Maid

Dan Dailey as Holl, Youth Party Leader