Ned Price (Warner Bros)
Screening of a fine grain print, from the nitrate negative
Flesh and the Devil marks the beginning of the long collaboration between Clarence Brown and Greta Garbo (seven films, including the far from traumatic transition to sound with Anna Christie). Stiller discovered Garbo, Cukor and Lubitsch directed her best films, but more than anyone else it is Brown (together with cinematographer Bill Daniels) who codified
her character and her looks – glowing, weary, passive but capable of any audacity, she is the very image of erotic dissipation or of a ‘reluctant nymphomaniac’ (Alexander Walker). Flesh and the Devil, from a novel by Hermann Suderman, marks the triumph of the photogenic over bad literature. Garbo descends from a train, an entrance that Brown will reprise in Anna Karenina; for Captain John Gilbert it is an epiphany; for her, the beginning of a destiny of amorous defeat. She slides into the quite ambiguous friendship between two men, made of blood pacts, embraces and joyful, virile skirmishes. She literally slides, in the most liquid of all seduction scenes: she meets Gilbert once more within the sinuous framing of a dance scene; they recognise one another across a curtain of dancing backs; their dance is already almost a kiss. In a single sequence we find ourselves in the darkness of a nocturnal garden, in the intimacy of a close up illuminated solely by the light of a lit match.
The predictable chain of catastrophes, duels and disastrous passions follows. But everything becomes background (narrative) noise. It is the ‘face of Garbo’ that counts, and certain throw-away gestures which map her desire and degradation. All leading to the humiliating ceremony, which she must suffer through because it is part of the only love game that she is interested in playing: so we find her in the snow, following and begging her lover, who is going away but could maybe be moved by the sight of her soaking shoes. In the end, if we will remember Flesh and the Devil, it is for that one surreal and blasphemous gesture of a Eucharist chalice rotated in her hands and then brought to her lips in the exact point at which he, who denied her all contact, placed his. In the end, if we love Clarence Brown it is because he traversed the history of Hollywood, honestly and successfully, bringing along a vision of cinema matured in the silent era and never really submitted to the reasons of an alternate aesthetic.
Cast and Credits
Sog.: dal romanzo Es war di Hermann Sudermann. Scen.: Benjamin F. Glazer, Hanns Kräly. F.: William Daniels. M.: Lloyd Nosler. Scgf.: Cedric Gibbons, Fredric Hope. Int.: John Gilbert (Leo von Harden), Greta Garbo (Felicitas), Lars Hanson (Ulrich von Eltz), Barbara Kent (Hertha), William Orlamond (zio Kutowski), George Fawcett (pastore Voss), Eugenie Besserer (madre di Leo), Marc MacDermott (conte von Rhaden), Marcelle Corday (Minna), Philippe De Lacey (Leo da bambino). Prod.: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp.. 35mm. L.: 2793 m. D.: 111’ a 22 f/s. Bn.
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