This post originally appeared on Dec 29, 2009, at 2:02 p.m.
Flesh and the Devil, 1926. Directed by Clarence Brown, based on the play The Undying Past, a translation by Beatrice Marshall of the 1894 German play Es War (“It Was”) by Hermann Sudermann.
Starring Greta Garbo as Countess Felicitas von Rhaden, later Mrs. von Eltz; John Gilbert, her real-life lover and one-time fiance as mistreated hero Leo von Harden; and Lars Hanson as Ulrich von Eltz. Gonna relay the brief plot via some killer screencaps. Enjoy.
At the crux of this silent melodrama is a love triangle aggravated by protagonist Leo’s continued desire for Felicitas, the adulterous wife of his best friend Ulrich — who married Felicitas after Leo’s duel with her first husband resulted in Leo’s being stationed in South Africa for five years — and author of his misery.
Supporting players are Barbara Kent and George Fawcett as Ulrich’s younger sister, who begs Felicitas to stop trying to have both her brother and his friend, as it can only result in yet another duel, and sage Pastor Voss, who has known both men all their lives. But the real star, of course, is Garbo and her face. Everyone else kind of fades in to the background.
The action begins with a ball where recently-trained soldier Leo first meets Felicitas von Rhaden, who he’d glimpsed briefly leaving the railway when he arrived in town. Felicitas also remembers the eye contact and throws him some more smoky glances. Stealing away from the ball with Leo, she conveniently does not mention she has a husband, so when Count von Rhaden catches them getting up to sexytimes in her bedroom, Leo has no choice but to accept the Count’s challenge to duel him.
Question for discussion: Would you seriously die for some chick you met at the train station even when you just had empirical evidence thrown in your face that she was lying by omission about being freaking married, so you knew there was a pretty good chance she was a skank? I mean, is her honor really more important than your life? What is wrong with boys? Anyway, Leo wins the duel and kills the Count.
For his trouble, Leo is sent to a remote army post in South Africa, but Felicitas stays in his thoughts, as evinced by these two, above and below, gorgeous pre-fancy FX stills. For me, simple cinematographic tricks of the early films are far more beautiful, haunting, and multi-dimensionally resonant than a thousand unnecessary CGI lensflares. (Dreamworks, write that down.)
Leo arrives home to find that, in his absence, Felicitas has married Ulrich, his best friend since childhood, who once became Leo’s blood brother with his little sister Hertha as a witness, and who was supposed to be keeping an eye on Felicitas for Leo while Leo was “out of town.” In Ulrich’s defense, having sex with a woman is a really good way to keep an eye on her while also taking time for fun. I mean, you can’t be all work and no play.
Felicitas is still all-up-ons, which obviously causes great conflict for Leo, who is still no great shakes at hiding his feelings. (He also continues to suck at not fooling around with married chicks.) Meanwhile, Ulrich’s little sister Hertha has caught on to her sister-in-law’s game and tries to intercede with Felicitas, seemingly to no avail. Leo goes to Pastor Voss for advice, who tries to counsel him against pursuing a relationship with Felicitas.
The pastor suggests that Felicitas is not the innocent pawn that love-goggled Leo perceives her to be, but instead is an active agent of temptation, perhaps even a metaphorical vehicle of Satan, a lying symbol of the falseness of a life lived away from a strong moral code.
Leo doesn’t totally cotton to the idea that the love of his life is just a jezebel who enjoys hurting men for sport, but Pastor Voss reminds him of the ruin she has wrought in his life already, forcing him to kill a man, sending him in to exile, and coming between Leo and Ulrich, his friend since boyhood. The pastor says, “I christened you separately, but I’ve scarcely seen you apart since.”
Mulling over the idea that Felicitas is not-so-blameless in this game of love, Leo flashes back on some particularly creepy and un-Christian moments in which he has caught sly-eyed Felicitas.
(It’s amazing the clarity that comes with celibacy.) This seems to actually get through to Leo, who it ends up has a capacity for outrage after all.
He goes and angrily confront Felicitas, taking her to task for the trouble she has caused him, seemingly for her own amusement, as she has specifically told him she will not leave Ulrich and that she wants to have her husband and Leo for a lover, too. When she doesn’t recant or apologize, Leo furiously goes for the throat.
Ulrich busts in to find Leo throttling his wife. Felicitas orders him to shoot Leo immediately — probably hoping that he will, and Leo won’t have the chance to explain why he was mad. Ulrich instead challenges Leo to a duel the next evening on a sort of sandbar-cum-island in the middle of their village’s lake called the Isle of Friendship, on which they used to play as boys.
Hertha, Ulrich’s sister, comes and begs Felicitas to stop the duel, but she will not. Finally, Hertha prays to God to soften her adulterous sister-in-law’s heart, and suddenly Felicitas looks guilt-stricken, gets all bundled up, and rushes out in to the freezing Winter night. This is cross-cut with scenes of the men preparing to duel, but finding themselves unable to even raise their guns and aim at one another because of their lifelong friendship. They realize this high-class hooker has basically wrecked them emotionally, and conclude that they would both be better off well-shot of her. They are friends again.
What’s been going on with the finally-redeemed Felicitas in the meanwhile, who’s been hurrying out across the ice to the Isle of Friendship as the men rekindle their love for one another and realize how worthlessly she has behaved? Mmm. Spoiler alert.
Bad girls finish last. Some releases further hammer this point home by showing a final scene in which the loving younger sister, Hertha, is on a carriage preparing to move to Munich, and Leo comes chasing after it to stop her. (Implying they will now hook up, because she is sweet and patient, and wants the best for everyone, instead of being kind of a whore, and now Leo and Ulrich will be brothers for real.)
Final thoughts: Boys, stop taking back your dreadful same old bitchface ex-girlfriends and tolerating their bullshit. Find a new bitchface and get embroiled in new bullshit!
Tags: 1926, adultery, advice, Barbara Kent, Beatrice Marshall, boobs, breasts, cheating, choking, cinema, cinematography tricks, Clarence Brown, classic, double image, early effects, Es War, evil, Felicitas, Felicitas von Rhaden, Flashback friday, Flesh and the Devil, Garbo, George Fawcett, Greta Garbo, Hermann Sudermann, Hertha, images, It was, John Gilbert, Lars Hanson, Leo, Leo von Harden, love, movie, movie quotes, movies, Paster Voss, Pictures, quotes, screencaps, sexa, silent movie, silent movies, special effects, stills, strangling, the silents, The Undying Past, Ulrich, Ulrich von Eltz, vintage, women