“Ninotchka” – Garbo Laughs



Title: “Ninotchka”

Release Date: 1939

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Cast: Greta Garbo, Melvin Douglas, Ina Claire, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach, Bela Lugosi


“Garbo laughs!” – this is how the legendary “Ninotchka,” the first comedy starring the divine Greta, was advertised. The slogan not only attracted crowds of viewers to cinemas, but also became part of the legend of this outstanding film, which was directed by the master of the genre himself – Ernst Lubitsch. The funny story of forbidden love between a Soviet agent and a representative of the Western world still entertains and captivates viewers today with its lightness and accuracy of observation. Above all, however, Greta Garbo is touching – laughing, gorgeous and finally happy.

Ninotchka arrives in Paris

The titular Ninotchka in Lubitsch’s 1939 film is a young Soviet agent who arrives in Paris on a secret mission. The capable and extremely disciplined companion must recover the jewels of Princess Swana (Ina Claire), which were brought to France by special Bolshevik envoys a few weeks earlier. The three men were to sell the valuables looted during the revolution and thereby gain valuable funds for the Soviet state. However, the sympathetic men unwisely succumbed to the charms of the French capital and embezzled the money entrusted to them. Meanwhile, the Duchess, who was in Paris, found out about the jewels and decided to sue for them. When Ninotchka arrives in France and realizes the insubordination of her companions, she intends to quickly put the situation in order. However, her plans are thwarted by the Duchess’s handsome and gallant attorney, Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who falls in love with the beautiful Russian woman at first sight.

“Ninotchka” – a burlesque about Bolshevism

“Ninotchka” formally resembles a burlesque, although it also contains elements of “sophisticated comedy” characteristic of Ernst Lubitsch. Socio-political satire, the subject of which is Soviet communism, comes to the fore here. Both the three comrades Ivanov, Bulyanov and Kopalski and the main character Nina Ivanovna Yakushova parodistically expose all the flaws of the Soviet system. Therefore, we are talking about show trials, failed five-year plans, party purges and, above all, the immense poverty of seemingly equal citizens. Ninotchka’s stony face spouting ideological cliches and quipping Western splendor with the words: “it won’t last much longer,” provides an archly funny commentary on the grim reality.

Ninotchka movie review


Here we have a clearly drawn contrast between Paris and Moscow. The French capital appears as a cheerful, fun-filled city in which one can fall in love. The Eiffel Tower, ballrooms, elegant restaurants and luxurious hotels – this is the Parisian world depicted in the film. Moscow, on the other hand, is a set of bleak images: cramped tenements, where one room is shared by several strangers, top-down connected by the authorities, and rations are not even enough for a modest dinner. The quintessential example of Bolshevik “justice” is the party organized by Ninotchka for former comrades. To make an omelet, everyone must bring their own egg, and the meal is disrupted by the constant passing of an eavesdropping neighbor-donor across the room.

“Ninotchka” – Garbo tinkled with “Lubitsch’s touch”

“Ninotchka” on the level of a romantic story, however, also contains the typical features of the famous “Lubitsch touch.” The film is set in the milieu of wealthy aristocrats, and the love adventures are lined with a certain erotic ambiguity. After all, the count, who is in love with a beautiful Russian woman, is at the same time entangled in a sexual relationship with Princess Swana. The upper classes, as usual in Lubitsch’s work, are treated somewhat ironically and the film exposes more than a few flaws of this social class.

In the foreground, however, is the divine Garbo, who finally, in a scene in a restaurant when her intrusive companion falls off a chair, abandons her screen seriousness and bursts into hearty, joyful laughter. Lubitsch recalled working with the legendary Greta this way: “I knew she would be funny on screen. (…) she was light-hearted, always light-hearted, and when it comes to comedy nothing counts more. When someone has a light hand, they can play comedy, and it doesn’t hurt if they are beautiful at the same time.”

Ninotchka 1939

There are several legendary gags in “Ninotchka,” and in some of them Garbo parodies herself. When Soviet comrades are surprised to see that their new superior is a woman, she says: “Don’t make an issue of my womanhood.” In another scene, asked if she “wants to be alone” (Garbo’s legendary line in almost every film), she vehemently denies it. The actress brilliantly plays the unshakeable seriousness when Count Leon unleashes his compliments on her beauty, which he sums up with a short: “you are very talkative.” Also excellent is the moment when the drunken Garbo lets herself be “executed” for her transgressions with the sound of champagne being opened. The actress received an Oscar nomination for her wonderful role, but the statuette was won by Vivien Leigh, awarded for the legendary “Gone with the Wind”.

“Ninotchka” – happy and in love Garbo

Garbo’s character undergoes a spectacular transformation before the eyes of the viewer. At first we see her in unfashionable gray clothes and almost without makeup, so that later, already in love with Paris and her admirer, the girl reveals the fullness of her phenomenal beauty. At a dance with Count Leon, she looks enchanting in a magnificent white gown made by her faithful designer Adrian. She also buys herself an extravagant French hat, which she initially considers the embodiment of bourgeois evil (at the sight of it she utters the famous “How can civilization survive allowing women to put such a thing on their heads? It won’t last much longer, comrades!”).

For fans of Garbo’s talent, on the other hand, the most important thing is the ending. Despite the strenuous scheming of Princess Swana, separated from her beloved Leon, Ninotchka finally meets her chosen one and can finally (unlike most melodramatic Garbo roles) be happy. How optimistic and at the same time touching, then, is the beautiful final kiss and Ninotchka’s words: “Bombs will fall. Civilization will crumble. But not yet, please. Wait, wait, what’s the hurry? Let us be happy. Give us our moment!”.


B. Paris, “Garbo: A Biography”, 1995