The Mortal Storm, 1940

During a dinner party to celebrate the occasion of Professor Roth’s (Frank Morgan) 60th birthday, news of Adolf Hitler’s ascension to the position of German chancellor at the Roth home is met with fervent excitement by his stepsons Otto (Robert Stack) and Erich (William T. Orr), and his daughter’s suitor Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) who believe that the new leader holds the key to restore the lost greatness of the German nation, and with tempered ambivalence by Professor Roth – a euphemistically called “non-Aryan” intellectual – and his protégé, a veterinary student named Martin Breitner (James Stewart) who disagree with Hitler’s policies of racial segregation, unilateralism, and warmongering. From this opening premise, Frank Borzage sets the poignant, defiant, and socially incisive tone for the inevitable tragedy and ruin that befall the Roth family as the remote Alpine town near the Austrian border becomes increasingly seduced by the sense of empowerment and solidarity provided by the Nazi movement…and with it, its oppressively (and destructively) isolationist, xenophobic, and militarist policies. Structured within the melodramatic framework of an ill-fated love affair between Martin and Professor Roth’s daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan), The Mortal Storm is an elegantly realized, penetrating, and chillingly prescient cautionary tale of socially accepted blind obedience, collective mentality, and narrow-minded self-righteousness: an indelible – and continually relevant – portrait of true compassion and human courage in the face of a prevailing, inhuman tide of intolerance and aggression.

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