Ninotchka is a romantic comedy of simple plot. It opens with three Soviet apparatchiks, Buljanoff, Iranoff, and Kopalski (Felix Bressart, Sig Ruman, and Alexander Granch, respectively). They have been sent from communist Russia to Paris to sell the jewels confiscated from a Grand Duchess, Swana (Ina Claire). The Grand Duchess herself learns that the jewels are in Paris. The three communists are hugely enjoying a life of luxury utterly unknown in their bleak country and, conned by the Duchess’ boyfriend, Léon (Melvyn Douglas), they are delaying selling the jewels. Moscow sends another bureaucrat to straighten things out, a relentlessly bolshevik young woman, Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, or, for short, Ninotchka. She dresses like a World War II Army WAAC. (Could this film have inspired that relentlessly sexless uniform three years later?) She is humorless, pleasureless, smileless, and devoted to the good of the Russian people.
Ninotchka and Léon meet by chance, and he begins a flirtation that she breaks off when she learns he is the Duchess’ advocate. But they fall in love and, after a drunken evening, the jewels are stolen from Ninotchka and returned to the Duchess. She confronts Ninotchka: Swana will let Ninotchka have the jewels if she leaves Paris right away without saying goodbye to Léon. To save the jewels which will buy tractors for her people, Ninotchka agrees. Léon’s efforts to get to her in Russia fail (amusingly). Meanwhile, Ninotchka, living the straitened life of a Soviet citizen, has a pitiful dinner with Buljanoff, Iranoff, and Kopalski, all lamenting their lives in Paris.
The finale involves Commissar Razinin (Bela Lugosi—where are the teeth?). He sends Ninotchka to Constantinople to check on Buljanoff, Iranoff, and Kopalski who are misbehaving as they did in Paris. There, Léon appears. He had ingeniously tweaked the Soviet bureaucracy to get Ninotchka out, and the lovers are united. The End.
Well, not quite. There is a final shot. Iranoff, Buljanof, and Kopalski have opened a restaurant in Constantinople, and Kopalski is on strike. It’s a contrast to the opening shot which was a title card over a view of Paris announcing pre-war Paris as a place of sex. We go from sex to economics, from the ideal to the real, although the picture as a whole goes in the opposite direction.
Obviously the film spoofs Stalinist communism with Ninotchka’s rigid propagandizing, three people to a room in an apartment, a gala dinner for four with three eggs, and Ninotchka’s report on doings in Moscow: “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” Less obviously, the film also criticizes capitalism in the greed of the Grand Duchess Swana and her gigolo Léon. Swana longs for the days of serfs (=slaves), Cossacks, and flogging. Her finances are as shaky as those of communist Russia. (Léon is trying to get her to sell her memoirs.) Léon himself is a charming but vapid man-about-town, something of a boy toy to the Grand Duchess. She in turn is what current slang would call a cougar, lecherous older woman with younger boyfriend.
Ultimately, I think this is a film about materialism and idealism, but you don’t want to get too serious and philosophical. Ninotchka is, in today’s jargon, a romcom, a romantic comedy, a bit of fluff. What enchants and changes stern Ninotchka is really capitalist frippery. The first thing that catches her eye is a frivolous hat. In her bolshie mode she dismisses it. “How can such a civilization survive which permits women to put things like that on their heads. It won’t be long now, comrades.” But then she sneaks off, and buys it. Later it is her evening dress in which she outshines the Duchess. And champagne that leaves her drunk and in love.
One shouldn’t get too serious about this film. On the other hand, it does no harm to notice that it does allow some serious readings. Its heft comes from its superb screenwriters, Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Walter Reisch, There is little unusual in William H. Daniel’s cinematography, alas. This is a film one prizes for plot and dialogue—like most of Lubitsch.
As usual with Lubitsch, there are lots of doors. (Mary Pickford called him “a director of doors.”) The film opens with a revolving door and ends with Léon appearing from a balcony door and the three bureaucrats discreetly exiting through a door (a “Lubitsch touch”). One final shot shows Kopalski picketing the front door of the restaurant Buljanoff, Iranoff, and Kopalski have opened. Doors inevitably lead to a sense of a surface, an outside that hides something different and inside. They create complexities.
Again, as always with Lubitsch, clocks. A clock dominates Ninotchka’s and Léon’s meeting in the middle of a busy Paris street. An Art Deco clock overlooks Léon’s efforts at seduction in his apartment, and Léon talks of the hands kissing. Swana’s domination of Ninotchka has much to do with morning and evening time. The clocks add a poignant note of time passing, of human happiness limited by time (and ultimately death). Ninotchka says it in her drunken political speech in the Royal Suite. “The revolution is on the march. I know. Wars will wash over us, bombs will fall, all civilization will crumble, but not yet, please. Wait, wait, what’s the hurry? Let us be happy. Give us our moment,” and let one of Lubitsch’s clocks time it.
The moment of Ninotchka’s transformation, the “Garbo Laughs!” moment, nicely mixes high and low. Léon has been pretending to Ninotchka that he’s proletarian, a regular at a workingman’s restaurant with funny stories for the boys. (The owner punctures the pretense.) Léon leans back the wrong way and falls on his butt. The workmen all laugh, he is discomfited, and finally Garbo breaks up her ideological stiffness and bursts into laughter—and then Léon does the same and stops taking himself so seriously. The woman doesn’t surrender to the man. They surrender to each other. The moment nicely sums up the film: we lose our pretenses, our ideological stances, our socioeconomic classes, and our gender dominations in a common humanity.
Léon and Swana demonstrated capitalist greed, while Ninotchka has the highest of values. She has come to Paris to provide her people with bread. She asks Léon, “And what do you do for mankind?” He answers, “For mankind not a thing — for womankind the record is not quite so bleak.” Witty? Yes. Admirable? No. The dedicated communist has humanistic values the czarist capitalists lack.
Lubitsch comes out on neither of those two sides, though. Rather, Ninotchka in her tipsy love scene plans a little house that is neither red (communist) nor white (czarist) but “no color, just a house house.” In the political party she dreams of, a salute will be neither arms raised (fascist) nor clenched fist (communist) but a kiss. Lubitsch comes out for love.
That sounds sappy, though, and Lubitsch is never that. He really is reaching for a humanity we all share to the extent political systems like capitalism and communism permit. Ultimately he is playing with the philosophical positions that underlie both communism and capitalist czarism. Ninotchka’s initial values are materialist. Food is so-and-so many calories, and love is a chemical process. Swana and Léon are equally materialist. She has no intention of using the jewels to help her fellow exiles. As for Léon’s hopes for the jewels, “You remember that platinum watch with the diamond numbers? You will be in a position to give it to me.”
In the finale, Buljanoff, Iranoff, and Kopalski have transformed food from mere calories to “People will eat and love it” and “We are making friends.” “There’s something in Constantinople, something irresistible.” Setting the finale in Constantinople suggests an ending that is neither Paris nor Moscow, neither capitalist nor communist. The something Constantinople has is the opposite of the materialism, both communist and capitalist, that most of the film demonstrated. Call it idealism, if that’s not too grand a term for the romantic love between Léon and Ninotchka. What matters is mind or spirit—or love. Lubitsch has graduated from his early comedies like Trouble in Paradise (1932) that prized intellect to something more humane or perhaps only more Hollywood. At any rate, he doesn’t settle for the simple-minded glorification of “the American way” like other films of the period.
Lubitsch does something else unusual for the Hollywood of 1939. Most romantic comedies of the time ended by settling even the most adventurous of heroines in the safe confines of domesticity. Whatever masculine or bold the heroine thought or did was subjected to the man in the finale. There were some fine exceptions among the screwball comedies like His Girl Friday (Hawks 1940) or My Favorite Wife (Kanin, 1940). Like them Ninotchka ends up with a strong woman still strong.
In that vein, one of the amazing things in this film has nothing to do with the period or Lubitsch or “the Lubitsch touch”—it’s Garbo’s acting. Watch her eyes, large and luminous and captivating. Most critics say she acts with her eyes, but that’s not accurate. Eyes can point this way or that—they can tell you what the character is seeing or thinking about, but eyeballs don’t change and reveal emotion. It is the rest of the face that conveys anger or sadness or disgust—emotions. What moves with emotion are the muscles of the face, particularly the orbicularis muscles around the eyes and mouth. Look up Paul Ekman and FACS, the Facial Action Coding System. These muscular actions are the same across cultures; that is why actors can affect audiences from many nations.
When you watch Garbo’s acting, which is truly extraordinary, watch the movement of her eyelids, the skin at the corners of her eyes in particular, and the flesh around her mouth. Critic David Denby, writing in The New Yorker, quotes one of her directors, “Standing on the set, he couldn’t see her acting at all. But the rushes revealed momentous little shifts in her expression.” Denby himself points to Garbo’s subtle facial movements. She “lowers her head to look calculating, or flutters her lips.” “Her face darkens with a slight tightening around the eyes and mouth; she registers a passing idea with a contraction of her brows or a drooping of her lids.” And Garbo herself understood this. Beginning with her last silent pictures, she began excluding people from the set, even studio suits. She had screens put up so that extras, crew, and others could not watch her. She said, “If I am by myself, my face will do things I cannot do with it otherwise.”
What the great screen actors do, and Garbo is surely one of them, is feel the emotions inside (method acting) or simulate them from outside in (classical) and the feelings move the small muscles that way. With run-of-the-mill film actors, the face moves only in large ways or maybe not at all. It is the story surrounding the actors that serves to tell us what they are feeling. For the great film actors, the small muscles of the face tell us. (They’re easiest to see if you speed up the film.) Watch Garbo’s face as she reads various letters or takes her first glass of champagne and see how different expressions follow one after another, subtly. Contrast her elegant acting with the broad acting of Ina Claire or Melvyn Douglas, both Hollywood regulars.
Critics talk endlessly of “the Lubitsch touch,” meaning a shot or a scene or a line, a momentary sexual innuendo that lightly eludes the censors. But there is another dimension to Lubitsch, even when he is being as airy as in Ninotchka. There is the poignancy of time, an understanding of love as crossing political and national barriers, of greed as probably the deepest of human faults, of the possibility of noble aspirations even in a broken polity, and more. There is more than a light sexual touch to Lubitsch—there is weight and substance.