THE MORTAL STORM (Frank Borzage, 1940)

Viktor Roth, a Jewish university physics professor, is revered by students until Hitler becomes Germany’s chancellor, at which point even Roth’s Aryan stepsons turn against him. Opposing Nazi nonsense about blood differences amongst “races,” he dies in a concentration camp. Daughter Freya—her mother is Gentile—breaks off her engagement with Nazi Fritz Marberg and falls in love with peaceable veterinarian Martin Breitner, a Catholic long in love with her. Both are considered enemies of the state. By skis, the two try escaping to Austria.
     While his nation clung to wartime neutrality, twice Oscared director Frank Borzage could get this grim, powerful work made; Germany as a result banned all M-G-M films.
     The visual darkness of Borzage’s film suggests the political shadow into which Hitler’s Germany had passed—a shadow that is part of the elemental nature of humanity. Borzage, a fundamentalist Christian, was eager to make such an argument as a matter of faith. He portrays the targeting of an elderly Jewish man in the Alps community, someone other than Roth, so there could be no doubt what was going on and, however irrationally, why; and, following Roth’s death, the authorities’ suppression of his manuscript, which Freya cherishes as her father’s last, unfinished work, intimately relates to the earlier frightening public spectacle of book burning. At the same time, Borzage suffuses the whole with tender poetry correlative to Freya and Martin’s love for each other, and Martin’s mother’s love for the couple. Falling snow distills God’s despair, and the camera roaming Freya’s abandoned house marks the equally despairing return of her father’s spirit.
     Margaret Sullavan, as brave Freya, is phenomenally moving; Frank Morgan (real name: Wupperman), excellent as her father; Maria Ouspenskaya, superb as Martin’s mother. As Martin, James Stewart doesn’t quite convince.

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