NINOTCHKA d. Ernst Lubitsch, 1939 (USA / 110 min), with Nick Smedley for Q & A. 3 December, 2019

Posted Tuesday 10th of December 2019


It’s a funny old thing… Ernst Lubitsch is known for his tactful onscreen treatment of sensitive subjects but here he and a veritable coach load of screenwriters draw out the social satire as brazenly as they dare. As Nick Smedley explained in his excellent Q&A after the film, this wasn’t without controversy at the time of its release, the contemporary press jittery about the film’s potential to offend the Russians. The Nazi presence in Europe makes its presence felt here too – released as it was on the very eve of WWII – but the major target is a post-revolutionary Russia where the aristocrats have been ousted, their property ‘returned’ to the people and a population turned to servicing mankind (well, supposedly…).

The plot involves an effort to sell some reclaimed jewels in Paris, but the three comrades charged with the task are more bumbling Marx Brothers than efficient servants of the state. They get easily distracted by the shop window charms of capitalism, demanding that envoy Ninotckha (Greta Garbo) be dispatched to resolve the mess. The presence of the former owner of the jewels – a splendidly viperous Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) – and her easy-living beau Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), stoke the tension and potential love interest.

Garbo is of course magnificent – one far too long and preposterous drunk scene would have undone any actor! – giving her stiff-lipped daughter of the revolution sufficient character and credibility to survive the indignity of swooning so completely for a smooth-talking toad. The contrived ending – as Ninotchka is dispatched on another mission via a fourth-billed but fleeting appearance by another European emigre, Bela Lugosi – sidesteps much, reminding us that history itself has a nasty habit of getting in the way of the guffaws.