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The Mortal Storm

Posted by martinteller on March 7, 2013

The setting is Germany, 1933, and the esteemed Professor Roth (Frank Morgan) is celebrating his 60th birthday.  He is surrounded by his loved ones: his wife (Irene Rich), his children Freya (Margaret Sullavan) and Rudi (Gene Reynolds), his stepchildren Otto (Robert Stack) and Erich (William T. Orr).  Also present are the two longtime friends of the family: one of his students, Fritz Marberg (Robert Young), and the young veterinarian Martin Breitner (James Stewart).  Both have been vying for Freya’s heart, but it’s apparently Fritz who has won it, as he announces their engagement.  In the middle of the party, however, the news comes over the radio that Hitler has been made Chancellor.  The schism at the table is immediately apparent, and the rise of the Nazi party will have devastating effects on this family, and friendships will be trampled.

One of the first American films to take a strong anti-Nazi position (it was released a few months before Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), it’s an effective and powerful statement.  And although somewhat Hollywood-ized, it features a fine level of restraint, achieving a sentimentality without making the viewer feel bullied into an emotional response.  The opening scenes establish such a warm and joyful climate, with a beautifully endearing performance by Morgan.  It’s the kind of thing that would come at the end of some Frank Capra film (not a knock on Capra).  And that makes the following events all the more tragic.  As the divide between Hitler’s blind followers and those who are persecuted for thinking freely grows wider, the sense of loss deepens.

Except for a few wonky process shots, the cinematography is lovely and unostentatious.  Borzage occasionally dazzles with a beautiful shot, but more often goes for subtle clarity and expression.  In one of the film’s most shattering scenes, a tracking shot establishes a happy, lively pub.  As Nazis take over the tone of the environment, the shot is repeated in the reverse direction, chillingly showing the patrons posing stiffly in the Nazi salute.  A later scene presents one of the most modest wedding ceremonies you’ll ever see with heartbreaking elegance and simplicity.  The romance in the story is handled sweetly without being allowed to overshadow the film’s main messages. And the finale is poetry, a lyrical demonstration that what was once joyous is now the realm of shadows, ghosts and faint footprints.

I already mentioned Morgan, and the other lead performances are excellent as well.  Rather than his blustery mode, Stewart is in his kind and gentle mode… a mode I always enjoy him in.  Sullavan and Rich are both strong and admirable, protective but with comforting feminity.  Special mention also for Maria Ouspenskaya as Stewart’s wise mother and Bonita Granville as their fragile maid.  The film’s primary weakness is the somewhat shallow depiction of the Nazi characters, but this is to be somewhat expected… and is tempered by slightly more nuanced characterizations by Young and Orr (or is it Stack? I forget who was who).

A very fine and affecting film.  Borzage is four for four with me, still many others I’d like to see.  Rating: Very Good (87)


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