Leo von Harden (John Gilbert) and Ulrich von Eltz (Lars Hanson) are long-time pals, having grown up together and served together in the military, sharing a bunk in the barracks. As kids, they made a blood pact to ensure their undying bond. They’re such good pals they’ve even got their own “Isle of Friendship,” an island they used to row to as children, where they made the pact.
Leo brings excitement to Ulrich’s life, and Ulrich covers for Leo when he stays out too late. It’s been a swell companionship and looks to be a lifelong one… until Felicitas (Greta Garbo) enters the picture. Leo meets Felicitas at a ball after first seeing her at the train station. He’s instantly smitten, and the lady isn’t exactly shy about returning his affections, but disaster follows.
Flesh and the Devil was directed by Clarence Brown. It was adapted for the screen by Benjamin F. Glazer from Hermann Sudermann’s novel “The Undying Past.” This film appears in the TCM Archives DVD release “The Garbo Silents Collection” alongside two more Garbo films from the mid- to late- ‘20s: The Temptress (1926) and The Mysterious Lady (1928). Orchestral accompaniment in this DVD version is composed by Carl Davis.
Regular visitors of TMP will know that we usually cover films of the ‘30s through ‘50s ‘round these parts, but I’m a sucker for a good silent film, and Garbo is one of my favorite actresses. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it a million times again: silent Garbo is the best Garbo, as much as I also love her later work.
Flesh and the Devil offers viewers the opportunity to watch Garbo perform alongside John Gilbert, the other half of her most well-known and still-loved screen pairing. They make one heck of a pair. That chemistry! Those faces! If you’ve never seen them act together or for some reason aren’t convinced of their appeal, this film will certainly set you right. They sizzle, especially in their early scenes of smoochin’ and sweet-talking.
Also on the plus side of things, Flesh and the Devil is very nicely-shot, with several bits of striking imagery. (A few personal favorites: Felicitas’ shadowy husband framing the doorway when he catches her with Leo; the silhouetted gun duel; backlit Garbo standing in front of her bed.)
The Garbo Silents Collection contains one film I had seen previously — this one — and two new-to-me (reviews coming tomorrow and Friday). I’m not as much of a re-watcher as I am a discovery-focused viewer, but I do enjoy the process of watching a film again, seeing what I gather from it once all of the details of the plot are familiar. What struck me about Flesh and the Devil this time around was the focus on Felicitas’ impact on the friendship between Leo and Ulrich.
The whole plot is basically an exaggerated (quite exaggerated) version of what happens when we allow love to take precedence over all other areas of our lives. It would be easy to dismiss Garbo’s character simply as a destructive, seductive vixen — and, in some ways, that’s just what she is — but the takeaway of the film for me was more so the (not-always-positive) influence that love can have on every aspect of our lives. It’s very telling that both men feel like a veil has been lifted from their eyes at the end of the film. Love didn’t blind them, but it certainly distorted things.
There’s drama, drama, and more drama to be had throughout Flesh and the Devil. The plot takes several melodramatic turns, all of which are effectively juicy and gripping developments to the complicated romantic quadrangle. Just when you think that death is the most dramatic thing that can happen… well, I won’t spoil anything, but not a second of the film is wasted!