"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 26, 2011

"Flesh and the Devil" (1926) with Greta Garbo (Film review)

Flesh and the Devil (1926) is a strange film. It is an early Hollywood product, silent, with a story that reeks musty of the nineteenth century, but the film is worth watching thanks to the presence of a young Greta Garbo and a few spots of inspiration of director Clarence Brown.

It is the story of two life long friends, Leo (John Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hanson), who start the film off on a giggly note when they play a prank in their military garrison. Leo is a commoner, but Ulrich is a rich aristocrat. There is a never directly stated, but for modern viewers unmistakable homo-erotic subtext to their friendship. But home, on leave from their military training, Leo sees the gorgeous Felicitas (Greta Garbo) at the railroad station. Smitten with her beauty, he seeks her out at a ball and retires with her into the garden for some private quality time.

Next we find him in her room, languid after a long embrace, and who comes in but her husband Count von Rhaden - she had conveniently neglected to inform Leo about the existence of a husband. This leads to a duel: the count is killed. The military authorities are not pleased and pack Leo off to Africa. Leo asks his friend Ulrich to take care of Felicitas, now a widow, without telling him about his relation with her (to the outside world, the duel was about cards).

After three years, Leo is allowed to return home and what does he find? Felicitas is married to his friend Ulrich! This of course creates a distance between the two bosom friends - Leo never informs Ulrich about his feelings for Felicitas. But the scheming woman now starts playing with Leo like a cat with a mouse... he becomes her lover again... which leads to a big quarrel between the two friends.

But all is well in the end, for the evil woman is swallowed by the icy lake she is traversing to stop a duel between them, while Leo and Ulrich reconcile and reaffirm their friendship. They are so busy looking in each other's eyes, that they miss seeing Felicitas, crying for help, dying lonely... the sinister woman who disturbed their pure friendship is no more...

Or at least, that seems to be what the film wants to tell us. This is all ultimate camp, but still interesting is how Greta Garbo plays the temptress who catches Leo in a web of sex and lies. Garbo has never looked more sexy than when she sits trying on her widow's weeds and dark veil. Or take the garden scene, where she lights a match for Leo's cigarette (he is too nervous to do it himself) and the flame reveals her beguiling features.

Interesting instances of cinematic art are the focus on the clenched fist of the husband when he throws open the door to the boudoir where Felicitas is having her tryst with Leo, and the duel sequence done entirely in silhouettes, like a shadow play. It is a pity that so much else in the film (including the story) is either dated or plain silly.