by Jen Frankel
Leo (Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hanson) are lifelong friends who once swore a childhood blood-oath that almost like a marriage vow. Nothing can come between them – until they meet the beautiful Felicitas (Garbo) while home on military leave. The sexual attraction between Leo and Felicitas is palpable, but she neglects to mention she is married. Leo is forced into a duel with the Count, Felicitas's husband, and kills him, leaving her a widow and him sent on extended military service to Africa. Ulrich promises to watch over her while Leo is gone, but in her lover's absence, Felicitas and Ulrich are married. Leo returns to find himself doubly betrayed. Felicitas's solution to keeping Ulrich's money and Leo's devotion is to begin an affair with Leo, driving a further wedge between the two friends.
Even by today's standards, "Flesh and the Devil" is a steamy piece of filmmaking. It was the beginning of the legendary silent screen era partnership of Garbo and Gilbert, and you can well believe that their real life love affair began at the same time they made this picture.
From the first moment they share the screen, this is a smoldering, sexual passion. Even if that was all the film had going for it, it would be well worth a look.
But "Flesh and the Devil" has some of the most gorgeous and memorable cinematic moments you could wish for as well, and the newly restored version also features a full and evocative score. Watch for the scene in the garden early on, where the light from a match becomes a third character in an intensely romantic scene.
Brown, who also brought to the screen such classics as "National Velvet" and "The Yearling," had already been a hard-working studio director for fourteen years when he directed this adaptation of Hermann Sudermann's novel "The Undying Past." He was nominated for seven Oscars between 1930 and 1947, a true son of Hollywood's Golden Age. For "Flesh and the Devil," you can see him creating pieces of the cinematic language that have sometimes survived to the present day – the way he plays with overlaid text to drive home Leo's obsession with Felicitas for example.
As Felicitas, Garbo manages to be sensual and guarded at the same time, so that the depth of her betrayal and shallow character come as the same surprise for you the viewer as they do for poor Leo who watches his dream of golden love turn to dross.
John Gilbert plays Leo with vigor and intensity, and his love for the ironically named heroine is as sincere as his grief at his own gullibility.
The film also manages to play a vast variety of emotional notes, at times tragic and at others quite hilarious. The character work of the supporting actors is excellent and adds to the picture's great charm.
At the heart of it, "Flesh and the Devil" is a study of true friendship between two men who betray each other for a venal and shallow version of love. Garbo's Felicitas is a woman more concerned with how beautiful she will look in her widow's weeds than that her infidelity caused her husband's death.
In the years before the ridiculous moral codes choked Hollywood's ability to tell a good story, this one stands out as ahead of its time even now, a sensuous and desperate descent for one man into a fantasy that comes close to destroying everything he holds dear and everything he believes true about himself.