Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Benjamin Glazer and Marian Ainslee (based on the novel The Undying Past by Hermann Sudermann)
Flesh and the Devil, it may not be too much to claim, was the most important film in Greta Garbo's career. I don't say that because it towers above her two prior American films and is an actual masterpiece, although it is; nor because it was the film that hit really big, and set her on her way to becoming the star of stars and MGM's most irresistible box office force, though it did, likewise, accomplish these things. Rather, it's because without it she probably would not have had a career, not one worth noticing nearly a full century later. When production on Flesh and the Devil began in 1926, Garbo had been in Hollywood most of a year, and she was already sick of everything to do with it. Some of this was the result of her personal peculiarities, including her fame-despising temperament, her melancholic nature, and her lessening but still salient lack of facility with English; some had to do with homesickness and grief, with her barely-a-year-older sister having been laid to rest back in Sweden; and not least, some had to do with the shitshow of The Temptress, which had ruined her friend and fellow Swede Mauritz Stiller's directorial career on behalf of a movie she'd hated in the first place. And Flesh and the Devil was primed to be more of the same: one more carnivorous bitch role; one more stranger yelling at her in a foreign language; another three months in a town she couldn't stand. She almost broke her contract and left.
Then something miraculous occurred, for without any apparent intention on Louis B. Mayer or Irving Thalberg's part to assist the collapsing starlet, Flesh and the Devil saved her, introducing her to two of the most important colleagues she'd ever have, one of them being director Clarence Brown, the other co-star John Gilbert. And thanks to them, making Flesh and the Devil was, for the first time for Garbo in Hollywood (and maybe the last time, at that), actually a truly pleasant experience.
Brown seems to have been of that comparatively rare breed, the great director that people liked to work with not because he was great but because he was kind (at least to women and children, or at least the ones he worked with), and he immediately sized up Garbo's needs, operating with a certain delicate touch—apocryphally, his direction towards her was frequently delivered in a tone of voice described as a "whisper"; equally apocryphally, he let Gilbert do most of the fine-tuning. Perhaps counter-intuitively, then, but only because we associate strong direction of actors with browbeating, he helped shape what was easily Garbo's best performance of her Hollywood career so far, and one of the best performances she'd ever give, despite a role that, if you really lay it out, is still just another vamp. (Maybe because of it, since much of what's great about it is the shading of so much actual human feeling and inner turmoil into such an inscrutable and sinister archetype.)
With Gilbert, things were rather more straightforward: they had sex a lot. Initially, she was hostile to her established co-star (he was at the very height of his success, fresh off the previous year's The Merry Widow, which was lousy but a hit anyway, as well as The Big Parade). But Garbo quickly snapped into place with Gilbert, who was, to begin with, her best and maybe first actual friend in America. By his side she occasionally even managed to get out of the hotel she was living in; before the film was done, she was living in his mansion; and there is something of Hollywood perfection to Flesh and the Devil, which threw two of the hottest people in the world together, made them kiss, and what came out the other side was a real-life romance. It was not made to last, for it was more one-sided than Gilbert would have liked, and more obsessive on Gilbert's part than Garbo would have liked. The scope of their relationship and the cause of its end is hard to determine, thanks to Garbo's enduring enigma; theories abound, from speculation that the entire affair was a creation of the MGM publicity machine (I hold this to be the "flat earth" option), to the rather more credible idea that Garbo was still figuring out her sexuality (or, if not "figuring it out," nonetheless unwilling to commit to monogamous heterosexuality). The one that I think is the funniest is the hypothesis that Garbo actually preferred to be a housewife, but Gilbert refused to hear any talk of her quitting acting. My personal suspicion is that Gilbert just plain spooked her by maniacally and continually insisting upon marriage, ultimately resulting in her reluctantly acceding, only to jilt him at the altar after all. (Remarkably, this didn't put a complete end to their cohabitation, at least not immediately.) Yet for all of Gilbert's unwise overreach and for all of Garbo's resolute unwillingness to be captured, they maintained a cordial and sentimental relationship till the end of Gilbert's life—not as long as that sounds, unfortunately, but rather just nine years—and Garbo strove to help him as his career and health deteriorated during the 1930s. On the other hand, she doesn't seem to have attended his funeral. But then, that almost seems correct.
Ah, well. Off-set sex (and Brown dances around it, but he even left some indication it was not uniformly "off-set") does not always translate into onscreen chemistry, but when it does, it can be electric. Garbo and Gilbert's attraction to one another is exactly that—so tangible it's overwhelming. The title, Flesh and the Devil, was not, of course, a result of Garbo and Gilbert: it was crafted to put asses in seats with an appeal to the most prurient interests the censors allowed; this was a punching up of the name of the English translation of the German novel it was based on, The Undying Past, which itself was already a punching-up, as a direct translation of the German title is the more poetic (but determinedly-unsexy and content-free) It Was. So, it was really just mere crassness at work (albeit effective crassness, as this was the first Garbo silent I chose to see), the same as the poster which incorporates an actual image of Mephistopheles (he is, in case it needs to be said, not a character in the film). Yet Garbo and Gilbert turn it into something with legitimate meaning, and it struck audiences in 1927 as undeniably real, romanticized and eroticized in equal measure by Brown's direction, but viscerally physical all the same—the spectacle of two unbelievably attractive humans making out in serious and purposeful ways that were held to be very nearly revolutionary for a mainstream American film.
But that's a little ways in: we certainly don't begin with Garbo and Gilbert. Instead, we begin with Gilbert and Lars Hanson. (Hanson was a Swede and, in fact, had acted with Garbo before in The Saga of Gösta Berling; having someone she knew from home was one more way Flesh and the Devil helped reconcile Garbo to MGM.) So: we find ourselves in the German Empire before World War I, where we meet Leo von Harden (Gilbert) and Ulrich von Eltz (Hanson), best friends since childhood (and, as a flashback details, literal blood-brothers) and presently unenthusiastically grinding their way through their military service and getting into silly scrapes, awaiting their next scheduled leave when they can go back to their respective next-door alpine estates. Leo's mom (Eugenie Besserer) is happy to see both of them; Ulrich's 15 year old sister Hertha (Barbara Kent) is happier to see Leo, for whom she has nursed a childish crush for years, which Leo has tried time and again to defuse with teasing mockery, to no avail. It wouldn't matter anyway: Leo is preoccupied with thoughts of the beautiful woman he briefly met at the train station.
The aristocrats celebrate their homecoming in aristocratic fashion, enjoying a grand party, and Leo is again put face-to-face with the woman he'd encountered; a swift attraction blossoms, and Leo installs himself in her bedchambers for the duration of his leave, promising to return as soon as possible even before he's left. It is, however, with the arrival of her husband (Marc McDermott) that Leo fully understands just whom he's sleeping with: the Countess Felicitas von Rhaden (Garbo). The cuckolded husband demands satisfaction. Leo gives it to him, after a fashion, and for the crime of dueling is given the "option" of enlisting in the colonial forces, subsequently shipped off to German West Africa for a three year stretch. Before he embarks, he asks just one favor of his friend Ulrich: look after the widow von Rhaden. The duel, fought under the pretense of "a dispute at cards," gives Ulrich no clue of their affair; he believes Leo is simply guilt-stricken. Thus he dutifully offers whatever help Felictas may need. And three years is, of course, a long time. It is less a surprise to us, then, than to Leo, that upon his return, his brain pounding with his lost love's name, he finds Felicitas by Ulrich's side—now his wife. But she has not forgotten their passion, either, and Leo is again placed in the unenviable position of the other man.
This is just flawlessly built melodrama, though I also appreciate the way that Brown settles us into it with the frothy lightness of much of his story's first act—everything before Leo and Felicitas consummate their romance has the complexion of a goofy comedy, almost-but-not-quite going too far with its cartoonish takes on everything German (their martial culture, their language, their alcoholic beverage preference, even their religion in the form of Pastor Voss (George Fawcett), the hectoring drunken angel who'll soon be sitting on Leo's shoulder). It is, however, varied in its comedy, ranging from the funny geometric arrays of German soldiers to intertitle gags. Of course, it's fun to have fun, but more importantly it allows us to get a strong sense of Leo and Ulrich's joyful camaraderie—a rather crucial factor in this story, after all. But the whole axis of the film shifts when Felicitas leads Leo—it's difficult not to just say "Garbo leads Gilbert"—out into a shadowed glade for their first tryst. Even beforehand, the mobility of the camera through the crowd of revelers to follow their dance has insisted upon the irresistibility of their romantic attraction; now the softly expressionistic use of light in the darkness, in the form of an otherwordly powerful "match" exploding out of the screen, coincides with the first flowering of their love. From here on if not from the first frames, it's basically a cavalcade of pitch-perfect choices from Brown, one superlative image after another, striking with the fullest impact of silent cinema and capable of sending shivers down your spine every time. (Not for nothing, anyway, did it confirm Garbo's career-long collaboration with cinematographer William Daniels, who had photographed her in Torrent and The Temptress, but truly made something special here under Brown.)
It's terribly tempting just to start listing Brown's achievements; let's limit it to just a few, like the measured movement of the camera toward the silhouetted, clutching hand over Garbo's face when Count von Rhaden discovers his wife's adultery, or the corny (but also belligerently ironic) montage of Leo's return home, where process shots of Felicitas beckon her erstwhile lover, and onscreen text suggests that in the noise of horses, ocean liners, and trains, Leo hears Felicitas's name. For completeness's sake, it is worth mentioning the one really bad choice: either because Brown believed we wouldn't recognize her immediately in profile (which seems insane), or because he knew we already knew, and wanted to forego the "surprise" to render Leo an even more pathetic figure in our eyes, the reveal of Ulrich's heretofore-unidentified new wife comes in a dashed-off medium shot rather than a close-up from Leo's own apocalyptic perspective. (Though at least we get such a close-up, seconds thereafter.)
That I'm willing to be this badly annoyed by such a minor thing, I think, suggests how much esteem I must hold for the rest of it, and, throughout, Brown's eager embrace of the primordial melodramatics of the scenario elevates it to outright mythological proportions. In this noble cause, he's ably joined by art director Cedric Gibbons, translating MGM's resources into splendid pictorial magnificence, a storybook dream of fin-de-siecle Germany. It's a landscape capable of supporting the larger-than-life passions of its leads, especially in the hazy effects shots that detail the alpine abodes of Leo and Ulrich.*
And so I will indulge in just one more "look at this shot" pseudo-criticism, and point to the annihilating elementalism of Leo's duel with Count von Rhaden, reducing our hero and his antagonist to graphic abstractions, no more than indistinct silhouettes upon a black horizon set against a glowing white morning sky, whereupon another judicious, subliminal use of camera movement arrives, feeling like the shift of destiny; instructed to begin, the combatants exit the frame entirely, their existence now reduced to nothing but the flash of smoke from their pistols, so for a long moment we do not know who won. We discover it only by the crushing implication of the image behind the next cut—Garbo, wearing the most obscure of smiles, her face covered by a widow's veil. It's amazing to me that cinema's best pistol duel came in 1927, but Flesh and the Devil could plausibly lay claim to having cinema's best two pistol duels, the other on an island full of frozen memories, approached by each participant across an icebound lake, and literalizing the reluctance of their newfound enmity, so that even moving their legs out of two-foot deep snowbanks requires herculean effort.
But, in the interest of returning to more general and perhaps more useful observations, that savage cut from the first duel to its true victor (or, arguably, its true loser) isn't the only interesting thing about Brown and Lloyd Nosler's editing, though the most interesting thing is "editing" in the negative sense, a willingness on Brown's part to sit with his actors' faces for surprisingly long moments of evolving feeling. By the limitations of the medium, it still forces them into silent, mugging expression; as a result, it's hard to say it's much more "realistic" than the snappy discontinuity between reactions that American silent cinema was still capable of (and which is certainly a mode deployed here, particularly with Garbo). But it feels almost unbearably empathetic. It's what grounds this mythic tale of violent love in human feeling, and there is a strong argument—I believe it would, in fact, be my argument—that it offers Gilbert the opportunity to provide the film its finest turn, a complex and constantly-evolving system of fear, desire, helplessness, and hatred.
Garbo is more closed-off, necessarily, far more of a tantalizing mystery—though there is nothing truly mysterious about Felicitas's obsession with Leo, which is pure and undeniable, even if she can express it in solely predatory ways—but Brown gives her the same opportunity late in the film, permitting her to find grace notes and dimensions within a sociopathic gold digger that seem to have had little root in the screenplay itself, staring at a token of wealthy Ulrich's affections and retreating into a painful ambivalence that finds more resonance with her betrayal of those affections than merely the loss of those tokens. Even Hanson is modestly great: despite a character whose job is predominantly to look like an unwitting idiot and stare in slack-jawed horror at new revelations, he's really good at these things, and his interplay with Gilbert is very nearly as important to the film as Gilbert's with Garbo, the two actors finding a startlingly intimate rapport, touching each other so much you half-wonder if they'll kiss, bound by a guileless homoeroticism that sells the vitality of their friendship terribly well in this visual medium.
Whether it's an actual downside or not, this is a supremely moralizing movie that is terrifyingly reductive towards ideas of masculinity, femininity, and correct behavior—Pastor Voss makes this crystal clear in a sermon that rails at the adulterers from behind a recitation from the Book of Samuel, and there's a jarringly "happy" alternate ending for alternate audiences, that Brown made under protest and should've been burned upon its completion. It's no less moralizing than The Temptress, really, only vastly more intelligent about it, using its emphasis upon religion and propriety to trap human passions in an overheated box for almost two hours; the title Thalberg imposed upon this tragedy was a good one for lots of reasons, but the most fascinating thing about Flesh and the Devil is that it makes those words, in a sense, redundant with each other. It's an all-consuming film. I like the silent form well enough, and while I do not fetishize it as some do, I appreciate what it can do that sound cinema cannot—and Flesh and the Devil does many of these things at an extraordinarily high level of craft. But is the only silent movie I've ever seen where the necessary artifice of the form falls entirely away, and I genuinely forgot it was a silent movie while I was watching it.
*Carl Davis's 1988 score is a boon, too, though it's always questionable whether a score "counts" with silent films, as indispensable as some manner of focusing noise is.