In his excellent 1997 piece on Frank Borzage, “The Sanctum Sanctorum of Love,” Kent Jones stated that “in Nazism Borzage finally recognized a formidable enemy of love,” adding, “More than poverty, more than war (in the abstract), more than physical separation or even death, the phenomenon of Nazism posed a real danger to love because it threatened to overshadow and replace it with a manmade, negative paternalism.” Although The Mortal Storm, which reportedly caused the Nazi government to ban all MGM productions in its occupying regions, contains a number of customary Borzage touches, it also boasts the kind of depth of thought and seriousness of purpose (not to mention a highly pertinent subject matter) one seldom encounters in the work of this wonderful and wonderfully romantic filmmaker. In comparison, two of Borzage’s most acclaimed movies, 7th Heaven (1927) and A Farewell to Arms (1932), both of which similarly combine elements of war film and romantic melodrama, feel downright self-indulgent at times—their obvious virtues aside. The Mortal Storm, on the other hand, is sharper, more intense. And although it is not nearly as expressionist as his later Moonrise (1948), it’s largely devoid of the radiant, soft-focus photography that was Borzage’s specialty in the prior years.
Adapted from British author Phyllis Bottome’s 1938 novel of the same name by another British novelist, Claudine West, The Mortal Storm was one of the first Hollywood productions made before the U.S. entered WWII to explicitly deal with Nazism and the rapidly unfolding crisis in Europe. The film opens in a small, peaceful Alpine town in 1933, on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power, which soon turns things upside down in many ways. The family of a respected university professor (Frank Morgan), a “non-Aryan” (reportedly half-Jewish in the book), ends up getting divided by the ideological beliefs now being endorsed, as his two stepsons eagerly join the Fascist movement along with his current student and future son-in-law (Robert Young). While his daughter (Margaret Sullavan) initially tries to keep an open mind about the situation, her worst fears come true when he is removed from his position and is subsequently sent to a concentration camp. Further complicating matters is the fate of a pacifist family friend (James Stewart), a secret admirer of the daughter who shares the concerns of the professor regarding Hitler’s xenophobic and militarist policies.
Contemporary viewers likely won’t be very forgiving of the film’s propaganda elements, but hopefully they will recognize their importance in the larger tapestry of the film (besides, of course, their historical value). Nevertheless, it’s quite impressive how Borzage builds up the ominous atmosphere with scenes both small (a dinner-table debate) and large (a public book burning). There may not be a shot in Borzage’s oeuvre as haunting as the one here of Morgan’s character emerging from the dark recesses of a prison. It is the last time we see him in the film.
Morgan is very good in a relatively brief role, and so are his two “employees” from The Shop Around the Corner, which opened a few months earlier in 1940—especially Sullavan, who also appeared in Borzage’s two other “Weimar” pictures, Little Man, What Now? (1934) and Three Comrades (1938). Given the subject matter and the way the Borzage has approached it, he appropriately keeps his usual romantic flourishes and exchanges in check—when Sullavan and Stewart are about to declare their infinite love for each other late in the proceedings, they’re promptly reminded by another character that there’s no time—although it is love that ultimately proves to be redemptive by being sacrificial. Not many filmmakers have ever understood the power of love better than Borzage.