Ninotchka (1939). 110 minutes. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Greta Garbo (as Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova), Melvyn Douglas (as Count Leon d’Algout), and Ina Claire (as Grand Duchess Swana). Written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Melchior Lengyel.
Ninotchka is a sparkling comedy about the collision between the Soviet East and frothy 1930s Paris. It was released in October 1939, just one month after World War Two began, and it gleefully depicts pre-war life with barely a reference to the ordeal unfolding on the continent. The closest we come to a note of the German conflict comes early in the movie when three Soviet envoys await the arrival of their Russian supervisor at a Paris train station. They assume this supervisor will be a man, and they scan the crowd for him, not knowing what he looks like. One of them arrives at a possible candidate: a man with a round, bearded face — perhaps it is him? But the next moment the unknown bearded man in question raises his arm to a woman in the crowd and loudly proclaims, “Heil Hitler!” She heils back. No, the Soviet envoys decide, that is probably not him.
But let’s begin at the beginning: The three envoys (played by Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach) have come to Paris because the Soviet government has decided to sell the astonishing jewels of the Grand Duchess Swana, which were seized when she fled Russia during the revolution of 1917. The Soviets want cash for them and have determined to sell them in the Paris market, hence the presence of the envoys who have been entrusted with the task of transporting them there and keeping a close eye on them while their sale is negotiated. But these envoys have a problem: the Grand Duchess Swana (played by Ina Claire) is also in Paris, and she has been tipped off to the envoys’ visit and to the jewels in their possession. She files a lawsuit in the French courts, and her companion, Count Leon d’Algout (played by Melvyn Douglas), delivers the legal papers to the envoys. He encourages them to live it up in Paris. Soon the envoys forget their primary task and have traded in their Russian clothing for more extravagant Parisian gear. The office in Moscow senses something is amiss and decides to send out the aforementioned special official, whom the three envoys assume will be a man, but at the train station they come to find that this official is the female and very stern Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (played by Greta Garbo), with whom Count Leon quickly falls in love.
Ninotchka focuses primarily on the relationship that develops between Count Leon and the title character, the two of whom undergo a whirlwind romance. She is a dour and unsmiling Soviet who pities Leon’s manservant and dispassionately encourages him to overthrow his employer. But the Count sees humor, charm, and beauty in Ninotchka. Soon he is reading Das Kapital (a volume that his repulsed manservant refuses to dust); she, for her part, purchases a silly Parisian hat that looks like an upright tube. The charm of Paris works on all of the characters, and the romantic sequences culminate in an evening scene in a Parisian nightclub into which Ninotchka enters wearing a fluffy, diaphanous gown. There she tastes champagne for the first time, and her reaction to this discovery is wonderful: in a long close-up of her face, we see her experience first disgust and then surprise at the bubbly drink. Up until then, she explains, she has only had goat’s milk as a child and rationed vodka as a young adult in the army. The next day, Leon sends her an enormous basket of flowers with a bottle of goat’s milk nestled in the base.
Little gestures like the goat’s milk make the love story very sweet, and indeed the hidden sweetness of Ninotchka is part of what the movie is cultivating. Leon encourages Ninotchka to laugh and be spirited; there is a long sequence in a restaurant where Leon tells joke after joke in an effort to make Ninotchka smile. The jokes do not work, but when he falls over in his chair, she erupts with laughter. This scene prompted the ad campaign for the film, which prominently featured the tagline, “Greta Garbo laughs!” It has been pointed out that Garbo had laughed in other pictures, but she was nevertheless widely known for her stern persona. In one sense, Garbo is playing a sort of parody of her own reputation in this film. It is interesting then that what Count Leon falls in love with is this sort of Garbo type — although we understand that he also sees beyond it. Both Garbo and the Ninotchka character eventually manage to break free from their public selves in this film (Garbo from her public image and Ninotchka from her intense and business-like demeanor), but Ninotchka does not completely turn into a decadent Westerner. She emerges from her Soviet trappings as someone who is uniquely herself. Even in the nightclub scene, when she slouches towards the powder room, drunk on champagne in her glamorous gown, she still manages to cause a stir when she attempts to persuade the ladies’ room attendant to revolt. In another film, Leon might have tried to change Ninotchka into a Parisian flibbertigibbet akin to the Grand Duchess Swana (although perhaps I am being unfair to Swana here), but in this film, Leon seems to love Ninotchka’s Russian characteristics increasingly even as her tastes become more recognizably French.
You could say that this movie is a love letter to Parisian society. For example, there is a nice sequence with Leon and Ninotchka at the iconic Eiffel Tower. But it is more generally a love letter to the West and the possibilities and freedoms that the West offers, from the frivolous to the profound. This component of the movie becomes especially clear after Ninotchka and the envoys return to Moscow. The film depicts communist Russia as a drab, cramped, and poor country with little privacy or choice, and with considerable suspicion and tension playing out in the characters’ daily lives. In Moscow, Ninotchka shares living quarters with two women, and there is a bathroom accessible only through their room and that is used by many other people in the building. One of those people is a known informant. It proves difficult for Ninotchka to reminisce with friends about her Paris days, even in her own apartment, without the risk of being overheard by someone who could make trouble for her. And then of course, when she thinks she has caught a break in the form of a love letter from Leon, she opens it joyfully only to find that it has been nearly completely censored. Ninotchka was one of the first Hollywood films to portray the Soviet Union in this light, and not surprisingly the Soviets banned it. It is easy to see why, especially given that it becomes clear that the heroine’s only chance at happiness in the end is to defect.
This film was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and the writing of its script was overseen by Billy Wilder, who of course later came to be an established and influential director in his own right. Lubitsch is known in the industry for his “Lubitsch touch,” an effect which is difficult to characterize (although people have often tried to describe it). In the most simplified terms, the “Lubitsch touch” involves showcasing witty and bubbly conversation, clever romance, and the most sparkling aspects of European society — but all with a frequent touch of sadness. Ninotchka most certainly dwells on sorrow in the Moscow sequences, but even then, it is a sorrow that exists in mourning for the glorious ebullience of Ninotchka’s former days in Paris. Life is dazzling in Lubitsch movies even when the lives of his characters are not. Lubitsch is also often called a master of making the frivolous seem weighty. For Ninotchka, something as simple as a cocktail or a hat in a Parisian shop window is transformed into an object of deep personal meaning and rich symbolism. Lubitsch’s gift for taking decorative and stylish elements and transforming them into something of great significance is certainly an integral part of the “Lubitsch touch,” and Ninotchka is a fine example of that touch at work.