Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 25, 2020)
Back in 1940, war raged across Europe, but the United States remained formally out of combat. Some desperately wanted the US to enter the conflict against fascism, and in that environment comes 1940ís The Mortal Storm, a commentary on how Germany changed under Hitler.
Set in the German Alps, 60-year-old Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) leads a sedate life with his family. In January 1933, however, Adolf Hitler becomes the countryís chancellor, and this almost immediately upsets matters.
While some of Rothís kin and friends embrace the Nazi creed, others disagree, and the non-Aryan Roth finds himself a target. Roth and family struggle to adapt to this dangerous new circumstance.
Once the US entered World War II in late 1941, Hollywood quickly embraced the propaganda effort to promote the cause of victory. Prior to that, though, movies tended to straddle the line a bit more cautiously, so films like Storm or Chaplinís Great Dictator stand out as more politically ambitious than most.
While I donít think Dictator quite deserves its status as a classic, it does come with glimmers of brilliance at times. Unfortunately, I canít say the same for the much less effective Storm.
Though fictionalized, Storm should pack a real punch, especially given all that we know about what happened in Germany during these years. We enjoy a historical perspective that means the basic tale boasts plenty of opportunity for power and drama.
However, the execution of the story just doesnít much work, and the film displays missteps from literally its start. Storm opens with a ridiculously overwrought introduction about the ďviolent stormĒ of the day, which we see depicted literally in a clumsy sequence.
From there, the basic sappiness of the tale becomes an issue. Storm takes an awfully long time to go anywhere, as it devotes an awful lot of screen space to depict how everyone adores Professor Roth.
Matters shift some from there, and rather than focus on the Professor, we end up with a dominant theme about veterinarian/family friend Martin Breitner (James Stewart), a pacifist who resists constant pressure to join the Nazi thugs. Professor Rothís daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan) also struggles through her relationship with avid Hitler follower Fritz Marberg (Robert Young).
At times, these elements come with reasonable drama, mainly because of our connections to the brutality of the era Ė and our own. I donít want to get political, but it becomes difficult not to equate the mindless, violent cult of personality that surrounds Hitler with a similar attitude toward a certain US president.
Unfortunately, Storm doesnít develop these conflicts in an especially meaningful manner. Fritz and his peers embrace Hitler for reasons never made clear, and the story lacks any sense of nuance.
Not that I necessarily think these nasty brutes deserve introspection, but the characters tend to go from zero to 60 awfully quickly, and their motivations donít feel clear. Granted, ďmob mentalityĒ can be huge, but I still think the story would work better with a less blunt approach.
Perhaps I shouldnít dock Storm for this, as I understand its purpose: to educate Americans about the threat of Hitler. If we see beloved boy-next-door Jimmy Stewart combat these ills, how can the country not follow?
None of this makes Storm a rich or especially compelling movie, though. With a cloying score and a generally sappy, sentimental tone, the movie acts as an intriguing piece of history but it just doesnít consistently connect as a drama.