Friday, December 7, 2007

She's a Femme Fatale

Greta Garbo, Flesh and The Devil

Flesh and the Devil
Director: Clarence Brown
Director of Cinematography William Daniels
Available on DVD from Warner Brothers: TCM Archives - The Garbo Silents Collection
Screened at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, December 1, 2007- Castro Theatre
Accompaniment by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer

***contains spoilers***

Flesh and the Devil tells the tale of blood brothers Leo and Ulrich whose life long friendship is threatened by the seductively destructive Felicitas. The film, made in 1926, bears striking similarities to the film noirs of the late 40s and early 50s. For example, the basic storyline of army buddies driven apart by a femme fatale, as well as the mise-en-scene that features a preponderance of interior shots, chiaroscuro lighting and expressionistic scenery, and lastly the idea of fate playing cruelly with the protagonist and putting him into an inescapable quandary- all these elements regularly appear in noir and, in fact, help define the genre. The striking difference between film noir and this piece comes with the protagonist, Leo, brilliantly portrayed by silent screen great John Gilbert. His character and the character of his lover Felicitas, Greta Garbo in the role that propelled her to stardom, illustrate the profound differences between the moral universes of melodrama and film noir.

Eddie Muller (founder of The Film Noir Foundation and author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) once defined film noir as a story about "people who know they're doing the wrong thing and do it anyway." Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity(1944)(available on DVD from Universal) are prime examples of this maxim. While Flesh and the Devil's "heroine" Felicitas certainly falls into the category of those who do wrong knowingly, Leo decidedly does not. From the beginning, their relationship illustrates this point. After two erotically charged meetings, the pair began a love affair. While enjoying a tryst, a man enters their love nest and finds them in a compromising position, it is Felicitas' husband. This revelation profoundly shocks Leo who had no idea his lover was married. The husband then challenges the startled Leo to a duel that results in his death and forces Leo into honor bound exile. Leo not only is faultless in the committing of adultery, since he was ignorant of Felicitas' married state, but he even protects both Felicitas' and her dead husband's reputation by claiming publicly that the duel was over a dispute at cards. With this action, he takes on the moral guilt that belongs to his lover. The acceptance of someone else's quilt, frequently seen in melodramas, contrasts starkly with the rejection of personal guilt seen in film noirs and in Felicitas' actions.
Film noirs generally take place in a moral vacuum, the world surrounding the characters is devoid of any sense of right and wrong and no one seems to act in anything but their own self"nterest. Orson Welles' Lady from Shanghai(1947)(available on DVD from Columbia) perfectly illustrates this corrupt and corrupting universe where everyman is for himself and God is against all (to borrow a phrase from Werner Herzog). In this film, Leo has definite moral guidance from his minister, Pastor Voss. The Pastor passionately denounces sexual trespass from the pulpit for the benefit, albeit rather harshly, of a morally conflicted Leo who longs to restart his affair with Felicitas now married to his best friend Ulrich. While Leo is deeply affected by the pastor's cloaked denouncement of his and Felicitas' desires, she calmly puts on lipstick as the man of God rants. She does for one brief moment swoon but recovers nicely and goes on to make an incredibly blasphemous gesture (which I'll leave as a surprise for the reader- it's my favorite moment in the film.) Again Felicitas' actions and look forward to the film noir universe while Leo's reflect the melodrama universe. The audience sees his moral struggle and feels his inner turmoil; as a result the melodrama's world view is upheld instead of the film noir's as represented by Felicitas. The world of the melodrama is a place where right and wrong matter and the hero or heroine must chose right. Interestingly right is not always represented by society at large, sometimes the melodrama's hero or heroine must chose an alternate and truer morality then the one society upholds.[Douglas Sirk masterfully represents this conflict in his films- All That Heaven Allows(1955) (available on DVD from Criterion) epitomes this struggle.]
The ending of Flesh and the Devil illustrates another difference between noir and melodrama. What happens to a protagonist at the conclusion of a story- is he punished for his sins or does he find redemption? In the noir genre typically he is punished. If he gets away with a crime, as in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)(Available on DVD from Warner), circumstances will turn and he will find himself punished for another one regardless of whether or not he committed it. In the melodrama, the hero or heroine typically finds redemption and absolution in self-sacrificing action as in the heartbreaking ending of Stella Dallas. This also holds true in terms of Leo's and Felicitas' fates. Leo, who struggled with his conscience throughout the film, in the end attempts to sacrifice himself for Ulrich's happiness by not shooting at his friend during their duel. When Ulrich realizes Leo will not fire back, he comes to his senses, realizes the truth about Felicitas and the two embrace. Meanwhile, Felicitas has seen the light and races to stop the duel, but being the more morally culpable of the two lovers and having repeatedly escaped punishment for her sins, her fate is sealed and she drowns when the ice gives way underneath her. Again Leo seems to be in a melodrama narrative while Felicitas occupies a film noir narrative.
So while Flesh and the Devil's narrative certainly seems to be an antecedent to film noir, especially in terms of Felicitas, the film none the less remains solidly entrenched in the moral certainty of the world of melodrama where evil is punished and good, or at least the struggle for good, is rewarded. Perhaps the cinema going world, even after the horrors of World War One, was not quite ready for the bleak existentialism saturating the film noir genre which flourished after World War Two and the invention of the A-Bomb.

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