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Chicago Movie Journal: The communist imagination

Chicago Movie Journal is a new biweekly column about movies and movie-related things around the city.

Incarnated by Greta Garbo in a performance directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the title character of Ninotchka is one of the great creations of satirical cinema. Garbo’s Soviet commissar at first seems like a caricature of the zealous revolutionary, as the filmmakers generate laughs from her humorlessness and rigid adherence to government protocol. But when Ninotchka falls in love with French count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), something shifts in the characterization. One begins to see an erotic charge beneath her political fervor, a sensitivity behind her idealized worldview. And so, what had begun as a skeptical view of Communism on the filmmakers’ part transforms into one of respectful ambivalence.

“The satire may be mostly a matter of easy contrasts,” wrote Dave Kehr in his Reader capsule review of Ninotchka, “but the lovers inhabit a world of elegance and poise that is uniquely and movingly Lubitsch’s.” I agree with the second part of this sentence but not the first; the elegance and poise to which Kehr refers complicate the film’s satire, achieving the graceful moral complexity that was the director’s specialty. If a hardened commissar like Garbo can blossom so easily under love, then maybe, the film suggests, there’s something in Soviet ideology particularly receptive to romance. Or is it the other way around? One of the better jokes of Ninotchka occurs when Leon, enraptured with his Soviet lover, starts reading Das Kapital and telling his butler to complain about working conditions.

Ninotchka conveys the romantic pull that Communism (or any dogmatic ideology, really) can have over its followers by associating the rush of moral righteousness with romance. In the work of multiple Communist filmmakers, such as Sergei Eisenstein and Roberto Rossellini, that rush is tied to

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