Flesh and the Devil (1926) Review

Flesh and the Devil (1926) Director: Clarence Brown

★★★★☆

Based on Hermann Sudermann’s 1894 novel entitled Es War (or “It Was” later published in English as The Undying Past in 1906), Flesh and the Devil was another success for MGM’s golden boy Irving Thalberg. It begins in the vein of a screwball comedy with a hazy love triangle, but it quickly devolves into a weighty romantic story driven by a notorious femme fatale. This film is ultimately made great by the transformative presence of Greta Garbo (this was only her sixth film). Her onscreen romance with John Gilbert was made all the more authentic as their lengthy affair was aflame offscreen. This was the stuff of Hollywood legend and makes for a terrific backstory to this film.

Flesh and the Devil tells the story of two childhood friends, Leo (John Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hanson), blood brothers who grow up and become German soldiers together. Upon returning home, they attend a ball and Leo falls in love with an exotic femme fatale, Felicitas (Greta Garbo), who is revealed to be the wife of a powerful Count, but only after she and Leo begin an affair. Leo and the Count duel, with Leo triumphant, but he is then punished by the German army and exiled to Africa for five years. However when he returns, he is horrified to find that his best friend Ulrich has married Felicitas. In the end, the two friends duel over Felicitas outside in the icy snow, but before they can fight, Felicitas falls through a patch of ice and drowns. In keeping with the morals of the time, the fallen woman Felicitas receives her retribution.

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