To fully appreciate this movie, one has to understand its historical significance. It was released in 1940, before the U.S. had entered WWII. The majority of Americans did not want to get involved in “Europe’s War,” information was starting to leak out about the treatment of the Jews, and yet appeasing Hitler was still the name of the game. But Louie B Mayer, as head of MGM, and Frank Borzage plunged ahead, portraying the Nazis as brutal, ignorant, and anti-Semitic. This was a bold move in 1940, and Hitler banned all MGM films in German-controlled countries after the film’s release.
The film is set in 1933, just as Hitler comes to power in Germany. The setting is a small German town near the border of Austria. Frank Morgan is the respected Professor Roth, teaching at a local college. He has two step-sons from his wife’s previous marriage, and he and his wife have had two children together. The word “Jew” is never mentioned but we know that Profession Roth is Jewish, and his step-sons are not.
The effects of Nazi politics on this family slowly play out, beginning with a happy family birthday party and ending with a camera panning through the now deserted home, and snowfall filling in the last footprints, walking away. It’s a powerful film, with this family being a microcosm for all of Germany and its conquered countries. It dispelled with the notion of a person, or a country, being able to remain neutral.
There are a few things you’ll want to ignore, the first and foremost being the use of rear projection filming for the ski scenes. The other is the accents or lack thereof. Everyone in the film is a German and it would make sense for them to all have the same accent, whatever it might be. But we have Nazi officers speaking English with a German accent, and the wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya with her heavy Russian accent, playing Jimmy Stewart’s German mother. Everyone else has a distinctive American accent. But these are trivial points.
Robert Young and Jimmy Stewart pop up effectively into the movie in Frank Morgan’s classroom. The always enchanting Margaret Sullavan plays the daughter of the Professor. Robert Stack and William T Orr are the Aryan step-sons, and their mother is played by Irene Rich. Watch for Ward Bond as a cruel Nazi torturing Bonita Granville (of Nancy Drew fame) for information. Dan Dailey also makes an brief appearance as a stalwart Nazi.
And listen for the “I was only following orders,” the excuse that would hauntingly return during the Nuremberg Trials in 1945. Bond delivers several of the most chilling statements in the movie to Sullavan, as Freya Roth, Jewish from her father, Aryan by her mother:
“You belong ‘in part’ to the German race.” “Your name doesn’t sound very well to German ears.” In 1940, it was just the beginning.