Once Untimely, ‘The Mortal Storm’ Proves Timeless Years Later

While critics and audiences thought it was untimely in 1940, the themes it explores have proved to be timeless as years have passed.
The Mortal Storm James Stewart

Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she highlights the themes that have made The Mortal Storm a timeless tale of melodrama.

For good reason, World War II is a period exhausted in film past and present. Stories set in war-torn Europe or back at home in the United States during the time offer a heightened atmosphere, making love stories more perilous and action plots more exciting. Hollywood movies addressing the war while it was happening or before America entered the fight had another responsibility on top of needing to be entertaining.

As the war quickly escalated into the 1940s, movies about Nazis needed to keep up with what was happening overseas. This was nearly impossible, leading many of them to become dated to audiences upon their release or shortly after. That was the fate of The Mortal Storm, a melodrama directed by Frank Borzage (History is Made at Night) that shows the rise of fascism in Germany. While critics and audiences thought it was untimely in 1940, the themes it explores have proved to be timeless as years have passed.

The Mortal Storm was adapted from Phyllis Bottome’s 1937 novel of the same name. She was a witness to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, and her first-hand experience shows in the story. The adapted version, not incredibly different from its source material, follows the Roth family, a “non-Aryan” (a.k.a. Jewish) family in Germany.

Professor Roth (Frank Morgan) is a respected academic in the community with a close-knit family. Freya (Margaret Sullavan) and Rudi (Gene Reynolds) are just like their father. However, step-brothers Otto and Erich (Robert Stack and William T. Orr) prove to be easily swayed by the Nazi party and stray from the family. So does Freya’s fiancé, Fritz (Robert Young), who is willing to give up his love for her if Freya doesn’t agree to be a dutiful Nazi wife.

Freya, her father, and their family friend Martin (James Stewart) resist the intimidation of the Nazis and become outcasts in their small German town. Soon, Professor Roth is sent to a concentration camp for refusing to stop teaching lessons contradictory to Nazi beliefs, and he is murdered there. Martin tries to flee into Austria with Freya, but just as the two reach the border, Freya is shot by Fritz and dies in Martin’s arms.

The Mortal Storm was one of very few vehemently anti-Nazi movies made before the attack on Pearl Harbor. It refuses to describe anyone as Jewish, but it does give audiences a realistic glance at how oppressive Nazi Germany became in such a short period. However, Bottome’s novel and the script were written when Nazis were not as well-known to Americans, or at least perceived as a true threat.

By 1940, the news of war overseas was a constant subject on Americans’ minds. Nazi social and political rhetoric in the movie were not unknown to audiences. In his review of the movie for the New York Herald Tribune (quoted by TCM), Howard Barnes wrote:

“Less than a year ago, it would have had far more dramatic and emotional impact than it has at this time … It is not MGM’s fault, but the timing on the making of ‘The Mortal Storm’ has been extremely bad.”

No matter how technically impressive the movie was, the context in which it was released affected how audiences received The Mortal Storm. And it bombed at the box office as a result.

The depictions of Nazis were historic for the time, though. The movie shows just how ruthless, hateful, and violent they were. Martin’s resistance to conform to Nazism is also a remarkable aspect considering its time, but the movie addresses much more than the specific topics related to World War II.

The family explored in The Mortal Storm could be plucked out of any period. They hold an undying love for one another but also face challenges that pit them against one another and pull them apart. Professor Roth ponders what his legacy will be and if it will live on in his children. Freya and Rudi are dedicated to following what their father wanted for them, while Otto and Erich want to make a life for themselves, even if it means making mistakes.

Similarly, Martin’s family has a beautifully tragic story that addresses much more than living in Nazi Germany. They have been farming on their land since the 1700s and their heritage is important to them. They make traditional cups for every couple to drink out of on their wedding day with one saved for Martin whenever he gets to marry. They keep the memories of their ancestors close. This makes their sacrifice for one another so powerful.

Martin is willing to die for Freya and his own family. His mother sends his sister away so that’s she’s safer from harm. There’s no guarantee that they will return home and see each other again. Even though Martin’s mother keeps saying things will be okay again soon, their actions say they fear for their lives. She has Martin and Freya drink from their marriage cups and say heartfelt goodbyes. They’re willing to part with their history to save one another from danger. That goes beyond World War II and is still such a palpable expression of love on screen.

Romantic love is also explored with great precision in The Mortal Storm. Childhood sweethearts Freya and Fritz are undoubtedly in love with one another at the beginning of the movie. Freya is proud of the charming scholar Fritz is. However, politics bring out a side of him she has never seen in the years they’ve known each other. He wants her to be subservient, silent on politics, and to abandon her family and friends for him. He never considers what Freya wants, and this is a problem she doesn’t see until he becomes obsessed with politics.

However, the beginning of the movie does give hints that this aspect of his character was there all along. He ignores Freya’s wishes and announces their engagement to her family anyway. Their relationship in the story shows how politics can affect who you love and how you love them, especially with such extreme ideologies. We continue to try to navigate how politics affects relationships, so this storyline still resonates today.

Broadly, The Mortal Storm explores the different ways that people react to distress. For some characters, they act in their own self interest. Fritz, Otto, and Erich are willing to abandon the people they love for their political views. On the other hand, Professor Roth, Martin, and Freya are just some of the characters who are willing to put themselves in danger for other people without hesitation.

Martin willingly accepts the target on his back to befriend and protect a Jewish schoolteacher in the town, despite not knowing him very well at all. Freya tries to keep her father’s legacy alive by traveling with his last written work, knowing she will be targeted by the Nazis. The movie is a testament to how, despite the horrors of the world, people can be good in even the worst situations.

What separates The Mortal Storm from modern World War II movies is that it is not prescribing retrospective insight onto history to entertain viewers. Even today’s movies that are adapting a story written during the war are made by filmmakers that know how it ends as well as the impact World War II has had on history. They know the present moment and the similarities between World War II and our current political climate.

Borzage and everyone else that made The Mortal Storm could not have foreseen how the war would end. In the final moments of the movie, Freya’s brother wanders around their empty home in his Nazi uniform. He stares at the ruins of their family belongings as audio from earlier scenes echoes through this one. It’s a devastating moment to end on, but it fits perfectly with the what the filmmakers knew in 1940. No one knew if the war would be worth it. They only knew that what once was will only ever be a memory.

They also couldn’t know if what they were exploring in the movie would be relatable years later. The fact that they unknowingly created a story so timeless is what every filmmaker dreams of. This worked out because they focused on broad, simple themes that happen in every point in history. Loss, love, morality, and sacrifice were present in stories told before World War II, and they remain resonant afterwards. This restraint and simplicity on Borzage’s part are what makes The Mortal Storm still remarkable today.

Emily Kubincanek: Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_