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The rise of Nazi Germany infuses the little-known “The Mortal Storm”

Updated: Mar 27, 2021


Martin Breitner (James Stewart) and Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan) are shocked at how quickly Nazism has overtaken their German village after Adolf Hitler is appointed chancellor. “The Mortal Storm” was the fourth and final film Stewart and Sullavan made together before World War II.

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Blu-ray, 1940, unrated

Best extra: “Peace on Earth” 1939 cartoon

STARRING James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Robert Young, Frank Morgan (fresh from his role as the Wizard of Oz), Bonita Granville, and the ubiquitous Maria Ouspenskaya, “The Mortal Storm” is an unusual American anti-Nazi movie made before the U.S. entered the Second World War.

Directed by Frank Borzage, and adapted from a book with the subtitle “The novel about dictatorships” by Phyllis Bottome, this black and white film is rarely hokey, but quite dark and compelling. Morgan plays Viktor Roth, a “non-Aryan” (i.e., Jewish) professor in 1933 Germany, who enjoys an apparently carefree life with his family: daughter Freya (Sullavan); stepsons Erich (William T. Orr) and Otto (an almost unrecognizably young Robert Stack). We meet them on Viktor’s 60th birthday, with Fritz (Young), Freya’s fiancé, and a friend named Martin (Stewart) there to help celebrate. During the party, a musical radio broadcast is interrupted by the announcement that Hitler has been elected Germany’s chancellor. This is when we learn that Otto, Erich and Fritz are Nazi sympathizers, eager to go to a rally in honor of Hitler, while Martin argues against fascism and in favor of peace.

(1) The MGM production premiered in New York City on June 14, 1940, and struggled to find an audience. (2) Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) receives a birthday hug from his wife Emilia (Irene Rich). (3) Prof. Roth’s students greet him with cheers and feet stomping for his 60th birthday. (4) Students Martin Breitner (Stewart) and Fritz Marberg (Robert Young).


As Germany turns more authoritarian and brutal, Martin offers to help Viktor escape to Austria, but the professor is arrested before he can leave. Freya understandably breaks off her engagement to Fritz, and a romance blooms between her and Martin. But the Nazi threat means they, too, have to find a way out of Germany, and the rest of the film follows the couple as they try to evade the authorities, Fritz included.


“The Mortal Storm” was previously released in 2010 on DVD by Warner Archive Collection, and this time they offer a 1080p version, which was made from a 4K scan of the best surviving 35mm elements (1.37:1 aspect ratio). The result looks very fine, with excellent detail and contrast, in addition to the wide variation of grays. The DTS-HD 2.0 audio is equally good, with dialogue always clear, sound effects realistic, and the musical score — co-composed by Edward Kane, Eugene Zador, and Bronislau Kaper — very effective and never intrusive. English subtitles are provided, if needed.


There are only two bonus features on the disc. First is a 20-minute color Navy recruitment/propaganda film from 1940, “Meet the Fleet,” with George Reeves (later to be our first television Superman) and Herbert Anderson, who went on to be Dennis the Menace’s TV father, playing new recruits.

(1) During the professor’s birthday dinner, word arrives via the radio that Hilter is now the Chancellor of Germany. (2&3) Local Nazis sing a German National song and then assault Prof. Weiner (Thomas W. Ross). (4) German college students burn books during a Nazi rally. (5) Freya breaks off her engagement with Fritz.


The 1939 MGM color cartoon, “Peace on Earth,” is an 8 1/2 minute anti-war animation that is extraordinary, as well as extremely moving. Set in a bombed-out, post-war city at Christmastime, with the sounds of the Hollywood choir boys singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in the background, we soon learn that all human beings have annihilated one another, and only animals are left in the world. How this happened is explained by a grandfather squirrel (voice of the great Mel Blanc) to his grandchildren, in front of a homey fire. Grandpa tells the toddler squirrels about how the men “were always fighting and feuding,” until there were only two soldiers left —who then managed to fire their last shots at each other, so there “were no more men in the world.” When the animals emerged from their shelters, they examined what was left of civilization, and discovered a Bible, in which a wise owl found the words “Thou shalt not kill.” The creatures began rebuilding the city with the detritus of the war, making houses out of helmets and lampposts out of bayonets. The cartoon ends with the baby squirrels, tucked into their warm bed for the night, and peace on earth. Amen.

— Peggy Earle

(1) Prof. Roth loses his teaching position at the Bavarian university for refusing to acknowledge a difference between Aryan and non-Aryan blood. He’s held at a German concentration camp. (2) Martin and Freya fall in love. (3) Fritz will lead the Nazi mission to find Martin and Freya as they try to escape to Austria.


(1) The mountain scenes were filmed near Salt Lake City and Sun Valley, Idaho. (2&3) Franz (Ward Bond) and Fritz spot Martin and Freya on the mountainside as the lovers reach the Austrian border. (4&5) The Nazis fire at the couple and the gunshots hit her.



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