I had an interesting experience tonight: I saw a film, The Mortal Storm, that I first saw in 1940-41, when I was 12 or 13, and living in a small New Zealand city in the first years of the war. Our city, on the far southern coast of the South Island, was one of the most remote cities in any part of the world, and we might have been forgiven for thinking that perhaps we might have been able to live through the war without being unduly involved in it. No such luck.
I seem to remember the film was warmly received, was given great respect, when we saw it. But tonight it struck me as being a work of crude propaganda, designed to turn us into German-haters so that we would have no hesitation in answering the call to go to war against the Nazis.
In that, it was undoubtedly effective, and considering that it was playing to a captive audience, I have little doubt it succeeded in its aim.
The film is set in the first days of Hitler’s takeover of Germany, 1933, by which time, already, to judge by this scenario, German young men en masse had taken leave of their senses. Unquestioningly, they would leap to their feet every time they met anybody and Heil Hitler away to beat the band. This disease infected even two grown sons of a liberal-minded university professor, Viktor Roth, played by Frank Morgan, although not his daughter, played by the delectable Margaret Sullavan, nor with Martin Breitner, a lifelong family friend, played by James Stewart.
Miss Sullavan’s character, Freya, was forcibly affianced to a disgusting little Nazi, played by Robert Young, in the film’s first few minutes. But when her kindly old father was beaten up, and was rescued by the noble Stewart, Freya broke off the engagement.
The dear old professor was arrested, tortured, and died, leaving Stewart to lead Freya (who had now magically fallen in love with him) over a pass into Austria. Robert Young’s character was directed to cut them off at the pass, as the American saying goes, and when, in a moment of weakness unusual among the Nazi youth, he asked to be excused, he was told by his superior, “in the service of your country there are no human relationships.”
He chased them, caught up with them, and his troop shot and killed Freya after they crossed into Austria, a sufficiently dramatic event to persuade one of her two Nazi brothers to renounce the cause.
This outline should, I hope persuade readers of the crude propaganda nature of the story: to judge by the behaviour of these characters, it is a wonder that the Nazi ever had the intelligence to take over their country. In this film, they have already been reduced to brainless automatons.
While it is true, as I have often remarked, that when an evil leader arises he is never short of ordinary people to carry out his dreadful schemes (pace, the Cambodian executioner Duch, who has just been convicted and sentenced to 19 years in jail for killing 16,000 people), one cannot help but suppose that the brains conducting these terrible experiments in human governance do have a modicum of intelligence, or their regimes would collapse at the first puff of wind.
In fact, odd though it may seem, even brutal killers like Saddam Hussein appear to have been able to make a better job of governing his country than the occupying powers who have displaced and killed him.
Such is a mystery we will probably never be able to penetrate.
Robert Osborne, the moderator for Turner Classic Movies, added one interesting tidbit about Miss Sullavan. She made no more movies, but retired to grace the New York stage until, in 1960, at the age of 50, she was found dead in New York from an overdose of sleeping pills.