Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Mortal Storm

A hit for MGM in mid-1940 was the boilover anti-Nazi film The Mortal Storm, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. It was based on the 1937 novel of the same name by Phyllis Bottome and featured a family of left-leaning assimilated Jewish intellectuals being squeezed out of German society, a position exacerbated when the daughter Freya falls for a sturdy peasant boy with strong Communist beliefs. It's not a bad read, all things considered, but it is the novel's conversion to film that is particularly interesting, because the latter included an influential book burning scene. In the novel, the elderly professor suffers the indignity of having his personal library vetted by stromtroopers, who confiscate a handful of blacklisted works. The scene, that is, shows the insidious effects of censorship extending into the personal home.
In the MGM film, however, there's a very different agenda, as this photo-essay from Life makes clear. In an important sequence, the director Frank Borzage pans from the professor having his class disrupted by noisy brown-shirted students, to the scene pictured prominently here, in which uniformed hordes burn books. The scene, which borrows heavily from the original newsreel footage, is probably one of the more accurate recreations of the events, right down to the inclusion of the "fire incantations". In particular, having the scene framed from the perspective of the sympathetic Professor helps shape the response to the meaning of the book burnings: significant, because it was only later in the war years that book burning became one of the most potent symbols of anti-Nazi propaganda.

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