Ninotchka (1939)

Greta Garbo as Ninotchka

“From what I’ve read, I thought champagne was a strong drink, but it’s delicate,” says Ninotchka as she takes her first sip of champagne. That line alone epitomizes the romance in Ninotchka, which revolves around the title character as played by Greta Garbo and Count Léon d’Algout as played by Melvyn Douglas.

They meet in the film as opposites. He is carefree and decadent. She is stiff and firm.  Through the course of the film however, Leon draws Ninotchka into his world, revealing a sweet and tender side to the Russian that he (or maybe even she herself) didn’t know existed.

Unfortunately – and I will put this as bluntly as Ninotchka would – the leads are just not that good, which sounds like blasphemy considering that Greta Garbo was considered as one of the greatest film stars for three decades. But if greatness is to be found in her acting, I didn’t find it here. Her stone-faced Bolshevik played out like a caricature and her turn of heart for the Count lacked believability. By the same token, Melvyn Douglas neither has the suave and sophistication of a Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise nor the tender charm of a James Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner. Most importantly, Garbo and Douglas just don’t have the chemistry that is required to make the audience swoon with the belief that they were made for each other.

A bigger problem with Ninotchka however, is that its satirical angle seems to miss the point completely. In To Be or Not to Be, Lubitsch executes a masterful satire of the Nazi regime. He ridicules the most blatant bullies of World War II and reveals a truth through comedy that is both poignant and profound. In Ninotchka however, a film that Lubitsch filmed three years earlier, Lubitsch strikes not nearly as flush or witty. This time, instead of Germany, the target of his political commentary resides in communist Russia. However, it’s unclear who is being lampooned; and more importantly, why.

The story of Ninotchka concerns itself heavily with a comparison of opposites just in the same way that the lead characters are introduced: The decadence of France vs. the rigidness of Russia, the plain uniform clothing of the Bolsheviks vs. the extravagant haute couture of the Parisians, the lavish and carefree high society lifestyle vs. the numbing tedium of communist society. Through this, the message is that communist Russia is evil, which is, I suppose a valid and relevant enough message during that time. The only problem is that the film does it at the expense of the people being oppressed themselves.

The butt of the jokes in To Be or Not to Be are the oppressors: Hitler, Nazi Germany and the Third Reich. Here, we see no shots being fired similarly at the Russian government. Instead, what we have to laugh at are Bolshevik envoys sent to Paris who are enamored by French culture. We laugh at Ninotchka’s Russian neighbor who walks as if the life has been sucked out of him. So, while Lubitsch’s heart appears to be in the right place, it seems that his aim is a bit off.

In spite of this, however, the great thing about Lubitsch films is that no matter what criticism may be laid on them, they never really are bad. Rarely are they even mediocre. In Ninotchka, what is left to admire is basically superficial Lubitsch: The classy production design, the grand and majestic air, the breezy pace and delicate touch. There not a lot of meat to sink one’s teeth into, but sometimes, what is experienced at face value may be enough.

Rating: B (good)

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