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Incarnated by Greta Garbo in a performance directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the title character of Ninotchka is one of the great creations of satirical cinema. Garbo’s Soviet commissar at first seems like a caricature of the zealous revolutionary, as the filmmakers generate laughs from her humorlessness and rigid adherence to government protocol. But when Ninotchka falls in love with French count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), something shifts in the characterization. One begins to see an erotic charge beneath her political fervor, a sensitivity behind her idealized worldview. And so, what had begun as a skeptical view of Communism on the filmmakers’ part transforms into one of respectful ambivalence.
“The satire may be mostly a matter of easy contrasts,” wrote Dave Kehr in his Reader capsule review of Ninotchka, “but the lovers inhabit a world of elegance and poise that is uniquely and movingly Lubitsch's.” I agree with the second part of this sentence but not the first; the elegance and poise to which Kehr refers complicate the film’s satire, achieving the graceful moral complexity that was the director’s specialty. If a hardened commissar like Garbo can blossom so easily under love, then maybe, the film suggests, there’s something in Soviet ideology particularly receptive to romance. Or is it the other way around? One of the better jokes of Ninotchka occurs when Leon, enraptured with his Soviet lover, starts reading Das Kapital and telling his butler to complain about working conditions.
Ninotchka conveys the romantic pull that Communism (or any dogmatic ideology, really) can have over its followers by associating the rush of moral righteousness with romance. In the work of multiple Communist filmmakers, such as Sergei Eisenstein and Roberto Rossellini, that rush is tied to flights of imagination, with formal experimentation serving as a creative analogue to how Communist governments set out remake society. Northwestern University’s Block Cinema has recently showcased two such filmmakers, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, in their ongoing series on modernism in Indian, Turkish, and Iranian movies. (The series continues tomorrow at 7 PM with Guru Dutt’s 1957 melodrama Pyaasa. The program is free and highly recommended.) Sen’s Interview (1971) and Ghatak’s The Runaway are exceptional examples of Communist imagination, as they communicate a revolutionary worldview without being overwhelmed by revolutionary rhetoric. The films critique Western-style capitalism while finding beauty in individuals’ ability to change.
The Runaway, about the misadventures of an eight-year-old delinquent who flees his rural home to fend for himself in Kolkata, conveys a Marxist sympathy for the lower classes in depiction of some of the minor characters and slum life in general. In Interview, the most formally inventive film I’ve seen in some time, Sen plays with cinematic technique throughout; characters break the fourth wall, documentary realism gives way to expressionistic sequences, and real-world current events intrude on the narrative. That film tells the story of a lower-middle-class man on a desperate search for a Western-style suit he can wear to a job interview; his blinkered desire to climb the social ladder represents a failure to see beyond his own wants. The character has a revelation in the final sequence, however, and chooses to fight against the capitalist order. The scene, heavy with rhetoric, is probably the least interesting in the movie, yet it doesn’t detract from the overall impact.
The old saw about Communism is that it sounds nice in theory but can’t work in real life; of course, one nice thing about art is that it doesn’t belong to the province of real life either. Movies can make simple ideology seem stirring and morally forceful through the richness of their aesthetics—consider the popping montage of Eisenstein’s Strike (1925), Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (2010), or such Dusan Makavejev films as W.R. Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie (1974). Currently, though, I’m haunted by another form of complexity that appears about halfway into Ninotchka. Leon and Ninotchka are dining at a swanky Paris restaurant when they’re joined by Leon’s lover, the exiled Russian Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). Swana instantly recognizes that Leon’s two-timing her with a Communist, leaving Leon, stuck sitting between the two women, to squirm until Ninotchka knows that Swana knows. Lubitsch presents the three of them in an extended medium shot, forcing viewers to alternate attention between the three characters as the most exquisite dialogue passes between them. We are observing subtle emotional and political transformations under the guise of a sophisticated comedy of embarrassment—it’s one of many sequences of Ninotchka that communicates the famous Lubitsch Touch.
Movies can resemble the Communist ideal in that they can comprise the work of multiple people committed to the same utopian goal. They can also resemble the fascist ideal when they represent the creative identities of many subjugated to a single, authoritarian vision. There’s something sexy about fascist cinema, albeit in a sadomasochistic sort of way—not for nothing have the sex-obsessed Makavejev and Paul Verhoeven cited Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) as a guilty pleasure. Given the rise of far-right governments around the world, I suspect we’ll be getting plenty of new opportunities for that particular type of pulverizing excitement. One already finds it, to varying degrees of self-awareness, in the glorified militarism of so many contemporary American action movies. v