While home on leave, military cadet Leo von Harden meets Felicitas von Rhaden and begins an affair with her. When Felicitas’ husband surprises the lovers flagrante delicto, Count von Rhaden challenges Leo to a duel, ostensibly due to a disagreement over a card game. Leo shoots the count to death and, as a result, must go out to the colonies to do his military service. When he finally returns home, Felicitas has married Leo’s childhood friend, Ulrich, who knows nothing of the love the two had … Greta Garbo is surrounded by an aura of light from the start of the film, including – perhaps especially – when in shadow. When John Gilbert as Leo lights a match for Garbo’s cigarette in a dark garden, the flame becomes an erotic signal, created by a small light in Gilbert’s open hand. Close-ups such as that one were developed by Garbo’s ‘personal’ cinematographer William Daniels, who had more or less created the ‘divine Garbo’ in their first film together. It was the art of using light, rather than the mimicry of silent acting, to register the emotions on the faultless, glowing face of his female star. It thus becomes the ideal surface for projection, not least of all because the male face remains in shadow.
by Clarence Brown
with Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Lars Hanson