Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm begins with the following voice-over: “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 older, 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?”
Following this voiceover (spoken while the screen fills with storm clouds), the film opens to Germany’s mountain country, a snowbound landscape that is not blasted, or hellish, brutal, or inhuman. It’s plush and familiar, hinting at hot chocolate and a Christmas eternal. Against this backdrop, the transformation of nearly all of the young men into Hitler youth (except, that is, Jimmy Stewart’s Martin Breitner), and the way they treat those who won’t follow them, is a relentless irritant, corroding the hitherto warm and inviting atmosphere of the mountain village. One day the Nazis are everywhere and everything, brutally masculine, arrogant, and capable of easy and sudden violence, but the natural landscape remains the same.
Then a switch occurs. Romance becomes the irritant and, effectively, Borzage positions his romanticism—the recurring image here is that of the last boy and girl in the world in love—as a contribution to Hollywood’s anti-fascist crusade. It’s his speck in Hitler’s eye, and the film is predicated upon the idea that the mote will somehow be swept away: tragedy. It’s a symbolic martyrdom, and a narcissistic one, since his romanticism is so characteristically Borzagean—it’s him against the Hitler youth, or David versus Goliath, except David knows he’s going to lose, but for a good cause: glowing, transcendent love and faith in humanity. This is love and death, Borzage style. Margaret Sullavan is sacrificed upon the altar of tragic inevitability.
Borzage doubles the tragic doom of the dainty, husky-voiced Sullavan with the broader tragedy of the young men who fell for Hitler. The final exchange between the three turned youths—college guys who started the picture no less full of vim and vigor than the beer-guzzling frat boys in an Ozu silent—shows them broken and doomed by the news of the death of their girl. The one who shot her cries “duty!” and consequently seals his own fate. Another mumbles, “Freya dead.” Their youth dies with her, and their childhoods are fully behind them as their involvement with Nazism moves from a youthful destruction fantasy to an adult world of choices and consequences.
The final two or three minutes of The Mortal Storm are infused with nostalgia (memory) and hope. But neither emotion is gratuitous or easy—both are hard-won, all the more moving since they have been tested against cruelty, narrow-mindedness, and hate. (A Borzage film builds a dialectic of emotions rather than ideas.) But along with these emotions is a deceptively complex tapestry of images and sounds that illustrates the film’s ultimate meaning, a tapestry in which each of the elements has a meaning and power unto itself, as well as a power derived from its juxtaposition with all of the other elements.
Borzage’s establishes a space free of human characters (Robert Stack is off-screen, the camera is his gaze) as his camera moves from interior to exterior (Borzage cuts from a staircase suggesting ascendance to a shot of footsteps slowly being covered in snow, which traces the line of a character making a journey), from architecture to nature, from those who have chosen ideology over love to those who have chosen the reverse. On the soundtrack is the young man’s footsteps, interwoven with remembered dialogue that covers a number of the film’s bases: happier times, Martin’s philosophy of free thinking, and a speech about carrying a torch as a metaphor for the passing of wisdom from the older generation to the younger one (this is after Borzage has shown a group of young people betraying their elders), and finally, a speech from the Bible wherein a traveler is assured that a spiritual torch is superior to a real one.