The rise of National Socialism in prewar Germany divides family and friends, as each must choose sides according to personal convictions. [Dir: Frank Borzage/ Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Robert Young/ 100 min/ Drama/ Power Worship, Individualism & Independence, Anti-Socialism]
What makes this film particularly interesting is its dramatization of the social domino effect that takes place once authoritarian rule reaches a certain critical mass, as ordinary people align themselves with even the most malignant power for fear of incurring its wrath. In such an environment, tolerance and the truth are the first casualties.
This story takes place in a small university town in early 1930s Germany. A popular university professor is celebrating his birthday, surrounded by family and admiring students. Suddenly it’s announced over the radio that Hitler has been made Chancellor. Half of the birthday party guests are in a frenzy of delight at the change in power, and half have misgivings. However, the “one nation, one language, one people” vision of the Hitler supporters doesn’t allow for friendly differences of opinion. Before you know it the party has broken up, as the Hitler supporters leave to attend a rally.
The youngest son of the professor remarks that the remaining guests shouldn’t mind, because as he learned in school, “the individual must be sacrificed to the welfare of the state.” Little does anyone know that, in one way or another, they will all soon be sacrificed to the state. For, by the end, most of the principal characters have either joined the Nazis, died, or left the country. Likewise, the ordinarily friendly relations between people have been destroyed and replaced with loyalty only to government. Some individuals resist the pressure to conform, but these efforts are almost quixotic given the context. As all this makes clear, the nature of political power is such that once it reaches a certain degree of concentration, it builds with little resistance.
The setting of this film, a rural university town, may seem an unlikely place to witness the rise of the Nazis; but in fact German universities were the original hotbeds of National Socialism, as American universities were later to become hotbeds of international, environmental, and democratic socialism.
In artistic terms, this is a quality production typical of its day. James Stewart is likable as always in the role of the stalwart but vulnerable hero, one of the few who resist the pressure to join the ranks of the Nazis. Fans of Marcus Welby, M.D. may be amused to see the youthful Robert Young in the role of arch-Nazi. Incidentally, when this film was released in 1940, Hitler was so offended by it that he banned it in all territories occupied by Germany, rather a lot of territory at the time.
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