Saturday, June 10, 2006

Musing Pictures: The Mortal Storm

This is an obscure film, and that is exactly what is surprising about it.

Here's what it's about:

-A German family, comprised of an Arian mother, Arian children and a Jewish step-father, gets slowly and agonizingly torn to pieces during Hitler's rise to power.

Here's what it contains:

-Frightening and accurate scenes of Germans being moved and inspired by the Nazi propaganda machine -- in some cases, inspired to do violence and injustice to the people who they once admired and loved.
-Unequivocal condemnations of Nazi social policies, especially pertaining to concepts of 'racial purity'.
-Images of characters in a Concentration Camp

Here's what's so surprising:

This film was produced and released in 1940.

There is a great deal of talk about how Hollywood never really addressed antisemitism in its films until "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947) (in which the Holocaust is mentioned almost as an aside), and the Holocaust itself doesn't really become a serious topic until "The Pawnbroker" (1964) (with occasional films that handled the issue at arm's length, like "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959)). But here, a film about the Holocaust that was released before the general public really had any clear sense of what was going on!

The scenes of the concentration camp are particularly surprising, because this was a time when no images, moving or otherwise, were available to anyone, anywhere, of the camps. It's just about the only historical image that is not accurate in the film (they got their uniforms perfect! Even "Schindler's List" didn't do that!) but it's pretty frighteningly close, right down to the spotlights on towers, the tall, ominous fencing, and the forced labor.

After seeing this film, I was filled with questions:

How did they know? (apparently the film was based on a book of the same title, which was written several years earlier!) There is so much in the film that is so accurately portrayed... it's amazing that the director, Frank Borzage, somehow managed to get it all right...

How was the film received? I wish I could find reviews -- did people realize that it was all true, or did they see it as a fiction? To what extent were American moviegoers aware of what was going on in Europe in 1940, and how much did this affect the way they received the film?

Why is it so obscure? It seems to me that "The Mortal Storm" should have much more significance in today's discourse on important Hollywood films. Aside from its subject matter, it is an exceptionally well-crafted film (it's very much a high-craft Stuido picture, right from the beginning), so there seems to be really no reason not to consider it quite highly. Evidence of its general obscurity includes the fact that IMDB has the wrong picture on the film's page, and it is not available on DVD anywhere.

I've found the VHS version of this film at only two libraries in Eastern Massachusetts, so if you're around here, you may have to fight to get ahold of it. If you're interested in examples of a more activist Hollywood, or if you are interested in the first Hollywood reaction to the Holocaust (which had barely begun at the time!), this is an absolutely necessary film.


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