07 November 2008

A Move About What We Value

What are our values? The answer to this question is at the core of what each of us is as a human being. A society's values determine what kind of world we live in. If we are at odds with our society's values then there is conflict.

Frank Borzage's 1940 film The Mortal Storm explores just such an issue. It's a look at the consequences of how a society's shift in values impacts a small village, especially one family.

The setting is southern Germany starting in 1933. The family is Jewish. The film starts on the 60th birthday of the family patriarch, Professor Viktor Roth who is portrayed by Frank Morgan. Dr. Roth is a wildly popular professor at the local university. We see him feted at work and later at home. But this happy occasion is interrupted by news of Adolph Hitler's ascension to Chancellor of Germany. We see some at the party celebrate, will others betray doubts.

Among those who immediately enlist with the Nazi cause are Roth's stepson, played by Robert Stack, and his daughter's fiance, played by Robert Young. (Yes TV's Elliot Ness and Marcus Welby once played Nazis.) Margaret Sullavan is the daughter, Freya and Jimmy Stewart a family friend, Martin Brietner. He is also yet another suitor for Freya. (Sullavan and Stewart had just finished making The Shop Around the Corner together.)

Needless to say the family is torn asunder. As was the village and as would be all of Germany and Europe. At the time of the film's release the proverbial manure had hit the fan and France was about to fall.

Mortal Storm is rife with tragedy, excitement and Borzage's patented melodrama. But it ultimately succeeds on two levels: one, as an expose of how the Nazis royally screwed up Germany, destroying productive lives and communities; and secondly as look at the importance of our values. Professor Roth and Martin both extol freedom of thought as being central to human life. Indeed to them its importance matches that of food, water and other essentials. A person holding such values is automatically at odds with a Nazi philosophy that demands conformity. When such a value is sincerely held one cannot bend to the will of a totalitarian regime. Only escape, death or perhaps underground resistance are options.

How seductive the Nazis proved to be to those who did not value the individual. It was so easy to become part of. Joining the party meant acceptance, protection and group identity. All others were outsiders and to vilify, even beat them, imprison them or kill them only enhanced one's position and security.

As The Moral Storm demonstrates the Nazis preyed upon those whose core values either did not include a strong sense of self determination or who could easily sacrifice such notions. Those who had loudly cheered Professor Roth on the occasion of his birthday later shun him as a Jew and one who teaches that no blood is superior or inferior to another. In reality it happened just like that too. Some people went from revered to reviled seemingly overnight.

The Mortal Storm is not sentimental. Characters we want to like turn rotten. Others we do like are killed. Given the time of its release it was obviously a strong anti Nazi propaganda piece (I've got no problem with that). But it did not merely beat the drums to fight this accursed evil. The Mortal Storm aspired to more than that. It remains powerful today because of its exploration of timeless themes.

Stewart is wonderful as the hero of this story. Morgan, who audiences usually immediately identify as the man behind that curtain in the Wizard of Oz (1939) is excellent as the intellectually strong, highly principled professor. It is especially through his character that we can explore what makes us tick, those truths that we hold as self evident, and how passionately we would cling to them.

This is what many good movies aspire to. Having us explore our own essential truths.

1 comment:

R. D. Finch said...

You really nailed the way "The Mortal Storm" shows how adherence to a doctrine can make us lose our humanity, especially a doctrine based on the "us vs. them" mentality. Young's decision at the end is the ultimate example of this. The movie makes an interesting comparison to "Three Comrades" (1938), also featuring Sullavan and Young (written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque). But in that movie Borzage was forced to disguise the anti-Nazi message by making it so vague and non-specific that it wouldn't offend the German government and get the movie banned there. This seriously dilutes the political context of an otherwise very good movie. It must have been a relief to Borzage to finally be able to show the Nazis in a true light.