Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Mortal Storm (1940)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Mortal Storm (1940)

In Frank Borzage's inspiring war-time drama, he presented an anti-Nazi political expose of the hateful, totalitarian Reich's chilling rise to power in 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor; the controversial propagandistic film was one of the first of its kind from Hollywood (released a few months before Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940)). The strong anti-fascist message of the anti-Nazi film caused it to be banned by the Aryan supremacist and anti-Semite Nazis in Germany, led by Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Although the film never mentioned the words Jew or Jewish (the term "non-Aryan" was used), the film so angered the Nazis that all of MGM's films were banned in Germany:

  • the film's opening voice-over prologue-narration - amidst gathering storm clouds of war, accentuated with thunder: "When man was new upon the Earth, he was frightened by the dangers of the elements. He cried out: 'The gods of the lightning are angry, and I must kill my fellow man to appease them!' As man grew bolder, he created shelters against the wind and the rain and made harmless the force of the lightning. But within man himself were elements strong as the wind and terrible as the lightning. And he denied the existence of these elements, because he dared not face them. The tale we are about to tell is of the mortal storm in which man finds himself today. Again he is crying: 'I must kill my fellow man!' Our story asks: 'How soon will man find wisdom in his heart and build a lasting shelter against his ignorant fears?'"
  • in 1933 Southern Germany in the Bavarian Alps, the Roth family was at the center of the drama: the esteemed 60 year-old college biology Prof. Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) (celebrating his birthday!), his wife Emilia (Irene Rich), biological son Rudi (Gene Reynolds), daughter Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan), and step-sons Otto Von Rohn (Robert Stack) and Erich Von Rohn (William T. Orr) - both step-sons soon became members of Hitler's Youth organization
  • the opening joyous birthday party dinner scene of the Roth family, with two events that immediately caused schisms already evident among everyone: (1) militant pro-Fascist Nazi party member Fritz Marberg (Robert Young), one of Roth's students, prematurely announced that he was engaged to Freya Roth: ("Freya has promised to love, honor, and obey) to her embarrassment ("I haven't made up my mind yet") - while sitting next to her other love interest - family friend, anti-Nazi activist and vet student pacifist Martin Breitner (James Stewart), and (2) a life-altering announcement by the maid about what she had just heard on the radio - Hitler's ascension as Chancellor of Germany: ("We have just heard they have made Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany...It is official, it's coming in on all the stations"); "non-Aryan" (signifying Jewish) Prof. Roth gave his cautious assessment of the political ramifications: "Men have given great power to Adolf Hitler. Let's hope responsibility brings wisdom"; in the political minority, Martin disagreed with others and affirmed: "I think peace is better than war. A man's right to think as he believes is as good for him as food and drink"; Prof. Roth called for calm: "Can't we discuss these matters without quarreling?"
  • the contrast shots of the town's inn - at first lively and happy, but then after being taken over by a large group of Hitler Youth who were singing the song "Die Fahne Hoch" ("a glorious song of a new Germany") and stiffly-saluting their new leader, it became dark and uninviting; only Martin, Freya, and Jewish Professor Werner (Thomas Ross) didn't salute or sing - and they were chastised for not participating; later an irritated Fritz called Martin, who was in opposition and had defended Werner's right to not sing, an "enemy of his country" and also point-blank derided him: "We want to know where you stand. We want to know whether you're going to join the party and work for Germany, or herd with the pacifist vermin we're going to stamp out. We want to know. Right now!" - Martin responded firmly: "You want to know if I intend to join your party. Well, I can tell you now, the answer's no!"
The Town's Inn: Before and After
Lively, Happy, Non-Political
Dark, Uninviting, Regimented
(Martin and Freya Refused to Salute and Sing)
Prof. Werner Was Accosted For Not Singing
  • the classroom scene of one of Prof. Roth's students asking a challenging question about Aryan and non-Aryan blood; after he gave his answer, the student refused to accept "scientific truth" - "Do you hear that? It's a direct contradiction to our leader's principle of racial purity! It's an impudent defense of racial degeneration, and it's a lie!"; after the false accusation, Prof. Roth spoke further: "I've given you the facts. Scientific truth is scientific truth! Unchangeable and eternal! It cannot be altered to suit the policies of the hour, or the clamor of immature hoodlums!"; as a result, Prof. Roth's class was boycotted by the Hitler Youth
In Prof. Roth's Classroom: Question & Answer
"Is it your opinion that there is no difference between the blood of an Aryan and the blood of a non-Aryan?
"Until now, physiology has been unable to discover any difference in the blood of the various races"
  • the steadfastness of Prof. Roth's courageous protest against oppressive Nazi indoctrination and beliefs of Aryan superiority, and his subsequent arrest and sentencing to hard labor in a work camp (and eventual mysterious death)
  • the scene of Freya's breakup with Fritz, but he thought their disagreements were only a "silly squabble over politics" - she claimed it was much more than that: "I know now I couldn't live in your world...You belong to this new Germany that's come between us This new Germany that persecutes my people...It's all over"
  • the attempt of Emilia, Rudi, and Freya to flee Germany with the assistance of anti-Nazi activist Martin (who had earlier fled to Innsbruck, Austria to help Prof. Werner escape - and had become a fugitive himself) - prefaced by the hasty marriage of Martin to Freya
  • during the desperate chase when the two were escaping on cross-country skis through the snowy Karwendel mountain pass (a scene slightly reminiscent of the ending of Grand Illusion (1937, Fr.)), Martin and Freya were seen in a long shot; after shots were fired by a patrol squad ironically led by her former fiancee Fritz, one of the two skiers fell - it was revealed to be Freya who had been lethally wounded, and then Martin was shot in the right arm; she spoke a few final words after he carried her across the border: ("But we made it, didn't we? We're free"); he assured her: "Listen, you can hear the church bells from the village. We're almost there, Darling"; when she asked him to pause: "No, no, wait. Let me rest a little. Dear Martin. I am tired now. Yes, very, very tired" - she collapsed and died in his arms as he called out in despair: "Oh, no, Freya. Oh, no. Oh..."
  • in the conclusion, just after learning of Freya's death, the sequence of Otto walking through the darkened rooms of his once-happy, empty family home; panning and stationary visual camera shots of shadowed objects in the home (the family dinner table, a chair, the overhead lamp, and a torchbearer statue) were melded together with aural clues as memories flooded his mind and he heard the distant voices of his now-deceased family members during the birthday party scene:
    - Freya: "Six candles, one for each decade of a wonderful life. Now blow them all out and make a wish"
    - Prof. Roth: "We've been a very united family. In this house, we've had the habit of gracious living. We've prided ourselves on our tolerance and our sense of humor. Good heavens, here I am making another speech. Well, I can think of no better wish than this: May our happiness last as long as we live"
    - Martin: "I think peace is better than war. And a man's right to think as he believes is as good for him as food and drink"
    - Prof. Roth: "I... I thank you for your beautiful gift. It shows me, this splendid torchbearer, that you have understood what I have desired to impart and that into your young hands will be given the torch of science when it has fallen from the hands of your masters. I sincerely pray that you will carry it worthily"
  • the dutiful Otto saw his past follies, and repentantly knew that he had made wrong choices in his life; presumably he rushed off to purge himself of his Nazi affiliations and their cruel doctrines; Otto's footsteps in the heavy snow (leading from the house and down some steps to the gate) disappeared or were covered over by lightly falling snow (with a slow dissolve camera effect) - symbolic of the changes he would make
  • a voice-over narration-epilogue of a quote from the 1908 poem The Gate of the Year (aka God Knows) by Minnie Louise Haskins: "I said to a man who stood at a gate: 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.' And he replied: 'Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than a light and safer than a known way.'"

Gathering Storm Clouds of War

Nazi Party member Fritz's Love for Fiancee Freya Roth

A Family Birthday Party and Cake to Celebrate Prof. Roth's 60th Birthday

Shocked Reaction to News That Hitler Had Been Made Chancellor

Listening Intently to the Radio Broadcast

Prof. Roth's Reaction: "Let's hope responsibility brings wisdom"

Martin's Response to Fritz' Question: "The answer's no!"

Freya's Breakup with Fritz: "It's all over"

The Growing Romance Between Freya and Martin

Freya Fleeing Germany with Martin on Cross-Country Skis To Escape Persecution and Oppression

Skiing Through Mtn. Pass While Being Fired Upon by Nazi Patrol

Just Across the Border, Freya's Stunning Death in Martin's Arms

Otto's Epiphany and Walk Through His Once Happy But Now Empty Home

Shadowed Object in Home: Father's Chair

Otto's Footsteps in Snow Disappeared


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