Flesh and the Devil Review

Image for Flesh and the Devil

Ulrich von Eltz marries Countess Felicitas von Rhaden after his childhood friend, Leo von Harden, kills her husband in a duel. However, they're soon cocking pistols when Felicitas seduces her old flame.


In only her sixth feature, Greta Garbo became a global superstar through her performances as Felicitas, the femme fatale in MGM's adaptation of Hermann Sudermann's novel, The Undying Past. The film marked her first teaming with Clarence Brown, who would guide her through six more of her finest outings. But, more significantly, it also united her with John Gilbert and they quickly became Hollywood's most celebrated cinematic couple, both on and off the screen. Indeed, such was her new-found kudos that Garbo felt able to go on strike until the studio improved her contract.

Yet, Flesh And The Devil is a wildly melodramatic tale, with the flashback to Leo and Ulrich's blood brothers ritual on the Isle of Friendship being as corny as the Pastor's booming declaration that `the Devil uses the flesh of women to try and tempt men' is a clumsy bid to appease the Hays Office by imposing a semblance of moral gravitas on proceedings that are littered with infidelities, killings and simmering love scenes between Garbo and Gilbert. Naturally, these now seem tame, but there's still something ineffably chic about the way in which Gilbert cups his hand to light Garbo's cigarette and something sensually sinful in her turning of the communion chalice so that she can drink from the spot touched by her lover's lips.  

 Indeed, to audiences in 1927, screen sex had never seemed so steamy and it's interesting to compare this ménage  with that of the city woman and the country couple in F.W. Murnau's  Sunrise, which was released the same year. William Daniels's lustrous cinematography takes the novelettish edge off the impassioned clenches, while the Austrian setting adds romance and nobility to the themes of love, loyalty and honour, thus intensifying Garbo's icy sacrifice, as she drowns trying to prevent the duel that, ironically, serves to restore the broken bond of friendship in the decidedly homoerotic finale.

Garbo is mesmerising in this wild and heated romance that has to be considered in context to cope with the excesive aesthetic and thematic melodrama.