Films We’ve Watched: Ninotchka (1939)

6 Nov

“It was the elegant use of the Superjoke. You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and then there was one more big joke on top of it. The joke you didn’t expect. That was the Lubitsch Touch.” – Billy Wilder

For almost a century now film critics and historians have attempted to describe the remarkable techniques and trademarks of Ernst Lubitsch, the renowned German American screenwriter/director/producer of the 1920s-40s.  His style was so specific and innovative that it acquired the slogan, “the Lubitsch Touch” – for which everyone has their own definition. But how can one pin down the many extraordinary layers each of his films had? His films were sophisticated and sexual, humorous and bittersweet, with a blend of subtlety and slapstick that are executed masterfully. A great example of this is the 1939 romantic comedy Ninotchka, not only noteworthy because it was Greta Garbo’s first comedy, but also for its grace and lightheartedness in the midst of substantial political and sexual subject matter.

Ninotchka is set in lavish, pre-War Paris, where three blundering Russian diplomats have been sent to sell jewelry confiscated from the overthrown aristocracy of Russia. Easily duped by Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas)–who wishes to reclaim the jewelry for his ladyfriend and former Russian duchess– the three decide to stay in Paris, and drunkenly sign away the rights to the valuables. It is then that we get to meet the titular character, an envoy sent from the Soviet state to repair the predicament her fellow countrymen brought about. Ninotchka is a stern “cog in the great wheel of evolution”, who declares Marxist slogans with no intonation, and has a great distaste for the frivolity of Paris and its people. Her icy exterior slowly thaws away, however, when she is pursued by the Count and enticed by the beauties of the West. In true Lubitsch form, the sweet romance is mellowed by a ceaseless barrage of pithy punch lines, always perfectly timed and performed.

Though many have focused on the pioneering political satire of this film, I was much more fascinated by the themes of gender. Surprising, I know. Ninotchka enters the scene as a strong, idealistic, almost non-sexual character who firmly tells her comrades from the get-go, “Don’t make an issue of my womanhood.” However, it’s not half-way through the film that she begins to put her behaviors to the wayside, wearing silly dresses, giggling, and swooning like mad over her lothario. At this point in my viewing I began to wonder: is this the first of the many romantic comedies to have this basic structure? I’d always foolishly given credit to When Harry Met Sally for the uptight-professional-woman-needs-a-little-man-love-to-loosen-her-up plot, but Ninotchka depicted it fifty years before Sally ate her famous, titillating salad! This disgraceful portrayal of the wavering of feminism has now been made into a cliché, and not a very interesting one at that—filmmakers believe that if they follow the formula that worked for Ephron and Lubitsch then they have a solid romance on their hands, forgetting that witty dialogue and characters that are likeable ACTUALLY matter. However, in the instance of Ninotchka the transformation isn’t near as disconcerting when you look at it in its context: this character is being portrayed in the 1930s and is a powerful force to be reckoned with. Also, the film’s message is not focused as much on the subject of gender, as it is on political themes—so it becomes not a question of feminism, but one of love vs. communist ideologies (which of course, could never go hand in hand).

Ninotchka: Let’s form our own Party.
Leon: Right. ‘Lovers of the World Unite!’
Ninotchka: and we won’t stretch up our arms…
Leon: No! No!
Ninotchka: … and we won’t clench our fists…
Leon: No! No!
Ninotchka: Our salute will be a kiss.

You’d think that a film rooted in the politics of the time would no longer be relevant, but in true Lubitsch form, Ninotchka is timeless. It doesn’t matter what generation you’re from: idiots are always funny, Paris is unfailingly bewitching, and love overcomes all obstacles. Every time.

– Lara



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