In 1933, Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan) is a young German girl engaged to a Nazi party member (Robert Young). When she realizes the true nature of his political views she breaks the engagement and turns her attention to anti-Nazi Martin Breitner (James Stewart). Her father, Professor Roth (Frank Morgan), does not abide by the attitude of the new order towards scientific fact.
Though his stepsons Erich (William T. Orr) and Otto (Robert Stack) eagerly embrace the regime, their father's reluctance to conform leads at first to a boycott of his classes and eventually to his arrest. He, a 60-year-old man, is imprisoned and forced to perform strenuous physical labor. His wife is permitted a five-minute visit in which the professor urges her to take Freya and her younger brother and leave the country. He dies soon after.
Freya is kept from leaving by Nazi officials suspicious of her father's work. She reunites with Martin and together they attempt to escape through a mountain pass. A squad (reluctantly led by her former fiancee) gives chase and Freya is fatally wounded, dying in Martin's arms just after they cross the border. Later, Erich and Otto are informed of their sister's death. Though Erich responds with anger towards Martin; Otto seems repentant, wandering their once happy home before walking into the heavy snow.Margaret Sullavan as Freya Roth
James Stewart as Martin Breitner
Robert Young as Fritz Marberg
Frank Morgan as Prof. Viktor Roth
Robert Stack as Otto von Rohn
Bonita Granville as Elsa
Irene Rich as Amelie Roth
William T. Orr as Erich von Rohn
Maria Ouspenskaya as Hilda Breitner
Gene Reynolds as Rudi Roth
Ward Bond as Franz
Russell Hicks as Rector of University
William Edmunds as Lehman, University Doorman
Esther Dale as Marta, the Roths' Maid
Dan Dailey as Holl, Youth Party Leader (billed as Dan Dailey, Jr.)
Granville Bates as Prof. Berg
The Mortal Storm was one of the few directly anti-Nazi Hollywood films released before the American entry into World War II in December 1941. The film stars James Stewart as a German who refuses to join the rest of his small Bavarian town in supporting Nazism. He falls in love with Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan), the daughter of a Junker mother and a "non-Aryan" father. The Mortal Storm was the last movie Sullavan and Stewart made together.
Freya and her father are implied to be Jews but the word "Jew" is never used, and they are only identified as "non-Aryans"; in addition, Freya's half brothers are all members of the Nazi Party. Though it is understood that the film is set in Germany, the name of the country is rarely mentioned except at the very beginning in a short text of introduction. MGM purposely did not mention the name of the country or the religion of Freya's family because of the large German market for its films, but it was to no avail—the movie infuriated the Nazi government and it led to all MGM films being banned in Germany.
The supporting cast features Robert Young (a major romantic lead in many Hollywood films and later Jim Anderson on television's Father Knows Best, and the title role in Marcus Welby, MD), Robert Stack (The Untouchables, 1959–63), Frank Morgan (Professor Marvel and the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz the previous year), Dan Dailey, Ward Bond (John Wayne's co-star in 23 films, one of director John Ford's favorite ensemble actors, and later the lead in the television series Wagon Train), Maria Ouspenskaya, William T. Orr, and Bonita Granville, who was the first actress to play Nancy Drew onscreen.
The film is based on the 1938 novel The Mortal Storm by the British writer Phyllis Bottome. Mountain snow scenes were filmed at Salt Lake City, Utah and Sun Valley, Idaho.
The score by award winning composer Bronislau Kaper and by Eugene Zador (who normally orchestrated) was not credited to them, but rather a pseudonym, "Edward Kane".
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "magnificently directed and acted ... a passionate drama, struck out of the deepest tragedy, which is comforting at this time only in its exposition of heroic stoicism." A review in Variety stated: "It is not the first of the anti-Nazi pictures, but it is the most effective film expose to date of the totalitarian idea, a slugging indictment of the political and social theories advanced by Hitler. ... Performances are excellent." Harrison's Reports wrote: "This is the most powerful anti-Nazi picture yet produced. It excels in every department - that of acting, direction, production and photography." Film Daily wrote: "Because of its virulent exposition of Nazi methods, this film must be seen by every American ... Magnificently directed by Frank Borzage, pulsating with dramatic power, and played up to the hilt by a transcendingly skillful cast, it will electrify audiences wherever it is shown." John Mosher of The New Yorker praised the film's story for being presented "without any theatrical nonsense" and added, "What is outstanding about Frank Borzage's direction is its restraint. The cruel story is told without any of the highlights of horror. We feel that what lies behind is worse than what we are shown."
The Mortal Storm ranked tenth on Film Daily's year-end nationwide poll of 546 critics naming the best films of 1940.