Saturday 15 December 2012

The Mortal Storm (1940)

The Mortal Storm
I do not know if I have mentioned how much I am enjoying this. Watching the movies on the 1001 List and writing about them. I have seen about 140 of them on this mission and just passed 100 reviews and I can certainly say that it has been a treasure throve of movie experiences I never knew existed. I readily admit that my knowledge of early cinema (and we are talking pre-70) was close to zip so almost every movie until now has been a first. How often do you get that on an average evening in front of the television?

Last night was another interesting experience with an old, but for me new film. “The Mortal Storm” is in many ways a rather unique film. Let me give three examples:

1.       The storyline is multi-dimensional and not following typical templates. A family in Bavaria, Germany in 1933 is feeling the intolerance from the Nazi party newly installed in power. The family is headed by Professor Roth (Frank Morgan), who is “non-Arian”, whatever that means (Jewish?). Besides not being of the right race he also insists on tolerance and peoples right to think what they want and, oh horror, he insists that there is no difference in blood type between Arians and other races. This is not the party line. Because of this the family suffers harassment, prosecution and isolation and finally has to flee Germany. While this is simple enough, the circumstances are quite complicated: Two of Professor Roth’s sons (from his wife’s first marriage) join the Nazi party. His daughter Freya (Margareth Sullivan) ends her engagement to her fiancé since he totally ignores her reservations about the party line and instead hooks up with childhood friend of the family and outcast Martin (James Steward). The Professor gets arrested just before leaving and (Spoiler!!!) dies in prison and on the way to Austria Freya is detained for smuggling out the Professor’s manuscript containing the heretic claims about blood types.


2.       The movie is an ensemble movie rather than having a single or two leads. One can say that the story is the lead and the characters fit their place in the story. James Stewart being the megastar of the film is thus relegated to a secondary part and the lead we have followed intensely the first 20 minutes (Professor Roth) is killed half way through the film. In fact the story have no qualms what so ever in killing or removing important characters and I am sure this is against all Hollywood rules. After the initial discomfort this is actually refreshing and keeps you on your toes. Nobody is safe. I also like that the story gets the proper emphasis instead of just being a vehicle of some star actors going through a standard pattern.


3.       We have seen a ton of American movies telling the story of the horrors in Germany under Nazi rule, but they are all in retrospect. This is a contemporary film. America is not even at war with Germany yet and will not be for another year and the picture of what is going on in Germany is yet rather unclear. Still this movie treats Germany as an enemy. There is nothing neutral about the portrayal of the Nazi’s and their actions. It also looks with genuine sympathy on the refugees of prosecution at a time when borders were closing. There is a clear message in this movie that the world (America) needs to wake up and realize that the Nazi menace needs to be dealt with. You leave the movie with a rage against the evil bastards that kill innocent good people and feel little sympathy for a people that so readily adopt a political agenda that set them up against family and friends. It is curious that the “The Mortal Storm” could also be an indirect criticism of the McCarthyism raging through America 10 years later when great people like Chaplin left the country.


For all these strengths I can live with that the acting is strained at times with an overdose of pathos and melodrama. Some of the characters become a little too cliché. The professor does not have a single fault in his life except perhaps the vanity that he hoped somebody would remember his birthday. Elsa, Martin’s sister is a hysteric wreck that looks like she should cut it down to say three Red Bulls a day and Bavaria is thick with girdles, beer and quaint villages. Well, that is an image American movies have kept in all the years since, so I guess it is unfair to blame the movie for that.

However even though the Nazi’s are depicted very black and evil the movie is not even going far enough. No exaggeration would take it even close to reality which the world would soon find out. Compared to reality the SA mob here is almost gentle and polite and the family is getting a surprisingly long leash.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that Maria Ouspenskaya appears as Hilda Breitner, Martins mother and is as usual excellent. She keeps popping up in the movies on the list and must have been very busy or just had a lucky hand in picking her roles.

Yet another movie I am happy to have seen. Again I send my deepest gratitude to the List.


  1. I found this one surprising and particularly powerful. Nice comments.

    1. Yes, me too, and a nice surprise at that. Thank you.