Screening on Film
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
With Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire.
US, 1939, 35mm, black & white, 110 min.
Print source: HFA

A poignant comedy of sexual and political tensions, Ninotchka teamed Lubitsch with up-and-coming screenwriter Billy Wilder behind the camera and Greta Garbo in front, with MGM’s big selling point being the indoctrination of the famously sultry star into the realm of farce. Garbo plays the joyless Comrade “Ninotchka” Yakushova, a walking parody of Soviet rigidity dispatched to swinging Paris to facilitate a jewelry sale. There, she meets her comic and romantic foil, the suave, pleasure-seeking Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas). While the film’s central dialectic of communism and capitalism manifests itself initially as broad satire in which Ninotchka is steadily educated on the spiritual benefits of loosening up (a thread that results in the greatest laughing fit in film history), Lubitsch gradually unveils richer shades in the scenario. The freethinking glamour of prewar Paris is shown to also be home to various displays of vanity and callousness, while a third act relocation to Ninotchka’s motherland illuminates the solidarity and companionship blossoming within gloomy Moscow flats. And as the film’s perspective expands, the humor darkens, touching on such extra-diegetic horrors as executions for civil disobedience, censorship and even the fast-encroaching stench of Nazism.

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