Every time I believe I have found the penultimate silent film something comes along to challenge all my assumptions. The Greta Garbo driven Flesh and the Devil is one such example. The acting, narrative and cinematography have brought me a state of awe that has not occurred since first viewing Metropolis. What makes this particular viewing experience even better was that I was able to attend a viewing of the film with live organ music, giving me a faint idea as to what it may have been like to attend a film in the twenties. Sadly, it was blatantly obvious that my girlfriend and me were the youngest couple there and were probably half the age of the next oldest person there. I wish yet again that persons my age had a love for the beauty of silent era filmmaking, but as this events showed, it has yet to happen. Regardless, I am enthralled by Flesh and the Devil and am making it a mission of mine to become much more versed in the MGM titles that were released during this golden age of cinema.
Flesh and the Devil follow a handful of characters as they interact in a lavish and old-world German village, particularly the relationship between two long time friends Leo (John Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hanson). They are shown as compatriots whose single concern is assure that they advance forward in unison, even if it means occasionally shoveling shit for the other, in the most literal sense of the term. Their bond appears to be sturdy and incapable of divide. This inextricable connection changes, however, with the emergence of Felicitas (Greta Garbo) a sultry women who exudes a sexuality so strong that Leo become instantaneously enamored with her. Their budding relationship seems perfect, until it is brought to Leo’s attention that Felicitas is already married to Count von Rhaden (Marc McDermott). In an attempt to assure Felictas’ love Leo duels and kills the count resulting in Leo’s exile to avoid severe punishment. During his long leave of absence, Leo thinks fondly of Felicitas, literally envisioning her name in his dreams. Felicitas, however, has moved on to wed Ulrich who is completely oblivious to the past relationship between Leo and Felicitas given its secretive nature. Ulrich in a moment of celebration is able to bring Leo back early hoping to share his good news. Much to Leo’s dismay he was hoping to marry Felicitas. The film then focuses on Felicitas and her attempts to seduce Leo without leaving Ulrich. As Leo, and the village priest make ever apparent, such a polygamous relationships is impossible and more importantly sinful. The misunderstanding almost leads to Leo and Ulrich attempting to kill one another, an action Felicitas attempts to be indifferent towards. In a climactic ending Ulrich realizes that Leo was only attempting to regains his love and that in reality it was Felicitas whose actions were tantamount to betrayal. This deceit is punished, however, because while attempting to stop the shootout Felicitas falls through a thin piece of ice, leading to her cold and lonely death. Ulrich and Leo are reunited as buddies once again to move freely through the world without the burdens of a competing sexual threat.
In a joking manner I left the screening saying that I had no clue why Brokeback Mountain was so controversial, this film was much “gayer.” I meant that jokingly because the characters of Leo and Ulrich are very intimate. The two are shown as an inseperable entitiy, often predicting the others actions and preparing to make each others movements go through with relative ease. In such a scenario their coupling represents the finest example of the homosocial bond I have ever seen in film. While the leading males never enter into a traditional homosexual act (they do come damn close at the end), they are obviously attracted to one another, in so much as they believe themselves deserved of one another’s blood. Their attraction, according to the homosocial bond, is not sexual in nature but more narcissistic in their desire to be with some one that equally represents them. Both Leo and Ulrich are white males who are relatively well to do. It is not only desirous for them to partner with one another, but ideal in terms of survival. In the simplest terms they are friends due almost entirely to likemindedness. With this in mind, it completely changes the purpose and image of Felicitas. Unlike the femme fatale the film portrays her to be, she is instead a threat to the power advantages of Ulrich and Leo’s homosocial bond. She represents an opposing ideal, which would mean severing their unity that assured mutual safety. Luckily for the duo and problematically for the film, their homosocial bond transcends Felicitas and her feminine interference. Such an ending is obvious an early twentieth century equivalent of the rather degrading term “bros before hos,” but clearly represents ideals prevalent in the 1920’s. Watch the film with this discussion in mind, seriously it is really obvious and almost tragically humorous.
I want to reiterate how spectacular this film is, particularly the acting and cinematography. Both were revolutionary and far superior to many films that are made today. It is well worth seeing and owning and I would suggest getting a copy as soon as possible, as it only exists in the outdated world of VHS.