It is a tale of Nazi Germany and how it destroyed one Jewish family. It opens in 1933 in the German Alps, in a town right by the Austrian border, on the day Adolf Hitler came to power. That day, January 30, 1933, also happens to be the 60th birthday of Professor Viktor Roth (Morgan). Roth is a Jew married to a Gentile, Amelie. They have a daughter, Freya (Sullavan), and Amelie has two sons, Erich and Otto, by her first marriage. Despite having a Jewish stepfather, Erich and Otto are both supporters of the Nazi Party. Similarly Freya, despite being partially Jewish, is engaged to a Nazi supporter, Fritz (Young).
The evilness of the Nazis leads Freya to break up with Fritz and get together with her other suitor, anti-Nazi Martin (Stewart). Nazi persecution of the Jews soon costs Viktor his job and then puts him in prison. Eventually, Martin and Freya realize they must flee Hitler's Germany.
1940 was the year that Hollywood finally started making anti-Nazi movies, with this film being released around the same time as Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and You Nazty Spy by the pioneers of anti-Nazi activism, The Three Stooges. MGM pulled its punches a little bit by rarely using the word "Germany" and not using the word "Jew" at all, only describing Viktor and Freya as "non-Aryan". It didn't work, as Adolf Hitler proceeded to ban all MGM films in Germany anyway.
- Alone in a Crowd: Martin and Freya, looking on with horror as everyone else in the beer hall sings a Nazi song.
- As You Know: Done pretty well. "You boys have made me forget that, unfortunately, I'm only your stepfather."
- Book Burning: The true terror of Viktor's situation is brought home to him when he sees a gang of Nazi goons burning books in the courtyard outside his classroom.
- Call-Back: As a distraught Otto walks through the now-empty family home, he remembers all their happy talk from Viktor's birthday party in the first scene.
- The Chick: Freya is the only girl in their little group of childhood friends that includes Martin, Fritz, and her half-brothers Otto and Erich. She tries to hold them together after the Nazis start splitting them apart.
- Day of the Jackboot: How the jackboot came to one little German town and ruined lives there.
- Downer Ending: Viktor dies in prison, Freya is shot and killed as she and Martin try to flee across the border, and the Roth family is destroyed.
- Establishing Character Moment: Some subtle characterization when Fritz and Martin are introduced together. While both are giving sincere and heartfelt birthday congratulations to Viktor, Fritz is bowing formally, clicking his heels, and talking about Viktor's contributions to "the Fatherland." Martin for his part is much more casual with the aw-shucks manner of James Stewart.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: As noted above, skittish MGM producers didn't allow the word "Jew" in the movie, so Viktor, Freya, and Rudi are only identified as "non-Aryan". And it was a pointless gesture, as Hitler still banned MGM movies.
- Heel Realization: Otto. After Freya's more thoroughly Nazified half-brother Erich rages against Martin, who is "free to fight against all we stand for," a repentant Otto says "Yes. Thank God for that."
- The Hero's Birthday: A dark example, as the film starts with Viktor's 60th birthday, which is also the day the Nazis are taking power.
- Just Following Orders: Fritz, who is obviously having problems with giving the order to shoot that killed his old girlfriend, says in a stricken voice, "I had no choice! I was only doing my duty!"
- Love Triangle: Fritz, Martin, and Freya. Fritz appears to have emerged victorious in the beginning, but events prove that Martin is Freya's real soulmate.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: Of the worst sort, as a Nazi dickhead on the train confiscates Viktor's manuscript, and another Nazi dickhead takes petty pleasure in refusing to let Freya leave the country.
- A Storm Is Coming: The meaning of the title, as further explained in the opening narration in which a Large Ham narrator talks about how thunderstorms used to make primitive man afraid.
- Tempting Fate: "May our happiness continue as long as we live."
- Title Drop: In the opening narration. "The tale we are about to tell is of the mortal storm in which man finds himself today."
- Translation Convention: In full effect, and uniquely effective in this film, when the townspeople refer to their country's dictator with the English word "Leader" rather than with its German equivalent, Führer.