When Greta Garbo Played a Soviet Agent

Today marks the anniversary of Greta Garbo’s death. The 1939 movie Ninotchka gave her a breakout comedy role — but also reflected the grim mood in Hollywood as Europe headed to war.

Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka, 1939. (FilmPublicityArchive / United Archives via Getty Images)

When Greta Garbo’s character Ninotchka returns to the dreary one-room apartment she shares with two other workers, she’s in a deep funk. Moscow, she finds, just doesn’t compare with Paris. She reminisces about various things — and notably, the elegant pair of silk stockings she had to leave behind. “You know how it is today,” warns her roommate Anna darkly. “All you have to do is wear a pair of silk stockings and they suspect you of counterrevolution!”

The Hollywood movie Ninotchka premiered in early November 1939. It was intended as a vehicle for MGM’s major star, Garbo, to act in a high-profile comedy for the first time. Yet as the drama of World War II unfolded across Europe, the high-powered quartet of writers trying to produce something relevant was shaken. A comedy — as ordered by their MGM bosses — was a high bar to surpass amid mindless tragedy. Three of the men, Mitteleuropeans who had emigrated to escape the Hitlerite threat, needed to perform well on Ninotchka. If they failed, they felt they might not be able to make a living — and a return to Europe was impossible.

Garbo’s Vehicle

From the minute Ninotchka — full name Nina Ivanovna Yakushova — marches through the Paris railroad station in her simple Soviet suit and low-heeled shoes, Garbo “owns” the film. Where else but Ninotchka does the leading lady reprimand a porter for taking tips and buying into a “corrupt” capitalist system bent on creating massive social inequality?

Garbo’s sympathetic portrayal, powerful natural beauty, and barely concealed humor (at times) are part of a tongue-in-cheek relationship she has as a commissar with three gentle, clueless Soviet colleagues, played to perfection by veteran Eastern European actors whom the writing crew had long known as friends. Ninotchka and the three characters try to sell a trove of confiscated White Russian jewels so that they can feed the impoverished people back home.

But Ninotchka’s unexpected attraction to Léon d’Algout, a count and gigolo played by the ultra-suave Melvyn Douglas, vastly compromises their mission. Unlike the grisly and chilling Cold War films produced a decade later, the “take” on communism in Ninotchka is put forward by a troupe of characters who trade engaging barbs with just a few lethal zingers.

In the outside world, W. H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,” saw “clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade.” “If Ninotchka is more sentimental in spots than Ernst Lubitsch’s films usually tend to be, that is largely due to the elegiac nature,” writes biographer and film critic Joseph McBride in his critically acclaimed 2021 book, Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge. “The film was shot from May 31 to July 27, 1939, when everyone knew the war was imminent.” Nevertheless, few in Europe were prepared for the pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR. On the morning of August 22, Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop flew to Moscow. He would sign the joint nonaggression pact with Stalin the following day.

“The swastika was already flying over Moscow airport,” writes American political essayist Alfred Kazin in Starting Out in the Thirties. “Hitler needed another week to prepare the attack on Poland, but that morning the Second World War had begun. . . . Stalin toasted Hitler’s health: ‘I know how much the German nation owes its Führer.’” Great Britain and France declared war against Germany on September 3, and US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt told Americans that their country would most certainly remain neutral in Europe’s war. Americans, in heavy isolationist mode, breathed a deep sigh of relief and reelected him the following year.

Meanwhile, MGM began wildly publicizing Ninotchka by plastering posters everywhere proclaiming “Garbo laughs,” seeking to reposition her from the heavy dramas with which she had long been associated. She and the Count d’Agout trade countless political quips in the completed film. “I’ve been fascinated by your five-year plan for the last fifteen years,” teases the part-time gigolo. “Your type will soon be extinct,” counters Ninotchka. Undeterred, he flirts, “One half of Paris is making love to the other half,” and she soon replies, “You are the unfortunate product of a doomed culture.” “But you must admit this doomed old civilization sparkles,” he adds. “Look at it. It glitters!” In the real world, Ninotchka’s dark prophecy was much closer to the mark — Paris would soon be overrun by Nazi troops. By April 9, 1940, the Germans had accomplished, under Hitler, what they had failed to do in four years of bitter fighting during World War I.

Back in 1938, MGM had tasked Hungarian playwright Melchior Lengyel with coming up with a story idea for Garbo, who had made her name performing in Anna Christie, Anna Karenina, and other dramatic roles. He immediately sent a one-paragraph synopsis, for which he was paid $15,000. “Russian girl saturated with Bolshevist ideals goes to fearful, capitalistic, monopolistic Paris. She meets romance and has an uproarious good time.” Garbo loved it, saying, “I will do it.” But it would take several months for German émigré Ernst Lubitsch to get control of the project. When he did, most agreed that the writing and casting were amazing. The problem remained: How would this promised zany political comedy “play” amid a fascist war tearing the continent apart?

Garbo’s Background

At one point in the film, checking out an expensive Paris hotel room, Ninotchka remarks, “Which corner of the room is mine?” The comment, delivered in her husky, Swedish-inflected voice, could very easily have been spoken at her home when she was a child or adolescent. Greta Lovisa Gustafsson had grown up with two siblings in a fourth-story walk-up apartment in a Stockholm slum. There was no indoor privy. Her father, a day laborer, died at age forty-eight of a kidney disease. Greta took care of him while her mother worked. “She never forgot the humiliations they endured as poor people in search of live-or-die attention,” writes Robert Gottlieb in his book Garbo. “She told a friend she had cried herself to sleep for a year after his death but was angered by the endless public weeping of the rest of the family.” “To my mind,” she added, “a great tragedy should be borne silently. It seemed disgraceful to me to show it in front of all the neighbors.”

But, in spite of a deep shyness, she had dreamed of becoming an actress and made herself known at a local Stockholm theater by hanging out at the entrance. During the day, she worked at a local barbershop lathering men’s faces before their shaves. Beyond all odds, Garbo won a scholarship to Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Training Academy. She was popular with the other students, but unlike them, she had no high-school degree and no knowledge at all of literature or playwrights — a situation that totally mortified her. Yet Mauritz Stiller, moving in and out of the academy regularly, noticed Greta. He was a gay director and cast her in his mega-movie, The Saga of Gösta Berling, one of Sweden’s most famous films. The two traveled to Hollywood together soon afterward. Surprisingly, Stiller’s career there failed. He returned to Stockholm and died soon afterward, aged forty-five.

Garbo, meanwhile, became incredibly popular and successfully made the transition in the early 1930s from silent to spoken films — a test many others in Hollywood failed. Yet before she turned twenty-five, Garbo had lost the three most important people in her life — her father; her only sister, Alva; and Stiller. These deaths would profoundly affect her throughout her life. Lubitsch would remark that she was “the most inhibited actress I’ve ever worked with.” She adored playing Ninotchka, and those who knew her longest remarked on how close she was, in many ways, to the Soviet commissar — her direct, often monosyllabic statements; her no-nonsense and sometimes severe temperament; and, yes, a sense of natural authority (paired with her shyness) that showed up on screen immediately.

Lubitsch and the Weimar Effect

Lubitsch, a Berliner whose father had grown up in Tsarist Russia, left Germany in 1922, yet was cruelly singled out in 1936 by Hitler as “the archetypal Jew in posters nailed up around Berlin”.

Lubitsch had been successful in both Berlin and Hollywood as a director of musicals and dramas, but by the late 1930s his California career had hit a rough spot when he was fired from a management position and made a couple of films that were financially unsuccessful. He needed Ninotchka to be a success, but was unclear about how to do it. In 1936, he had spent time in Moscow, and, after many discussions there with family and friends, returned to Hollywood deeply disturbed about what he had heard: deadly purges, secret police, rigid state control, murdered and imprisoned “enemies” of Stalin.

Yet, publicly, there was little talk of what was happening, and for the most part, since the dissolution of the Nazi-Soviet pact, the Soviet Union was seen as an ally by the West. One biting remark from Ninotchka tells us that the “last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” “It was a rare acknowledgment,” writes McBride, “into the brutality of the Stalinist purge trials and the Great Terror.” It was Lubitsch, the story goes, who wrote this particular line, an unlikely departure from the well-known and gentle “Lubitsch Touch.”

Lubitsch was part of a legendary group of Weimar-era writers, directors, and technical people who exited Berlin and Vienna in the 1920s and early 1930s for Hollywood. “The exiles Hitler made were the greatest collection of transplanted intellect, talent, and scholarship the world has ever seen,” writes historian Peter Gay — himself a transplanted Mitteleuropean — in his 1968 book Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider. “The exiles revised and modified Weimar modernism to meet the challenges of the period,” writes Ehrhard Bahr in Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism; “Los Angeles’s lack of cultural infrastructure provided an opportunity for Weimar culture not only to reestablish its identity in exile, but also to fulfill its promise.”

The Incorrigible Billy Wilder

A key part of Lubitsch’s writing team was Billy Wilder, fourteen years younger than Lubitsch and an assertive, imaginative, high-strung reporter in his hometown, Vienna (which he despised), and Berlin. There, he made a name for himself writing a series about his life as a hired hotel dancer (not quite a prostitute, but close to it) and as a director of an indie film, People on Sunday, which some critics saw as a forerunner to 1940s Italian neorealism.

Wilder, always a rebel, had grown up standing in line for hours for a few potatoes in post–World War I Vienna; stealing cars and visiting brothels as a teenager; and working endless hours both in Europe and California to become both the most noted screenplay writer in 1940s through mid-1960s Hollywood, and a director who controlled his own scripts. Lubitsch hired him to work on Ninotchka in 1939, taking him out of a monotonous life churning out nameless scripts for the big Hollywood mega-companies. Eventually, many of his early — and often painful — experiences were rewritten for his successful screen career later on.

His mentor during the Berlin years was newspaperman Egon Erwin Kisch, a famous Berlin political writer. Erich Maria Remarque, Bertolt Brecht, and Kisch — along with Wilder — wrote at the Romanisches Café, later destroyed during World War II. Kisch, who maintained faith in the democratic potential of the Soviet project, made Wilder sympathetic to socialism. Wilder fled Berlin soon after the infamous Reichstag fire with few permanent documents in hand. He later credited a generous consulate employee in Mexicali, Mexico with stamping his visa and making it permanent so that he could eventually apply for US citizenship. Without the help of this man, Wilder later remarked, he did not know what would have happened to him.

Soon afterward, he returned to Hollywood after failing to convince his small family in Vienna to return with him to the United States. The three would die in Hitler’s concentration camps. Totally broke, Wilder found his tiny room in the Chateau Marmont Hotel rented out to tourists for the Christmas holidays. It was, Wilder recounted later, the most depressed he had ever been, spending two weeks sleeping in the anteroom of the hotel’s ladies’ room. His writing partner, Charles Brackett, would comment unsympathetically in his diary that Wilder had a nervous breakdown and one nearly suicidal period before his career took off when he was hired to help write Ninotchka.

Wilder wanted to watch Garbo perform, and he often hid behind a piece of scenery to study her. “Of all the writers on Ninotchka, Wilder was the most aware of the nuances of radical politics,” writes Maurice Zolotow:

The script expressed insights which were unfashionable at that time but now seem to have been written out of prophetic inspiration. They wrote a decade before Kruschev’s revelations. In 1939, who could possibly have foreseen that Stalin’s own daughter would fall in love and become a Ninotchka?

As a 1944 essay in Life magazine put it, “Wilder has mixed feelings about Ninotchka because as a Russophile he had offended the USSR.”

Ninotchka Takes New York by Storm

Met by dazzling reviews and sold-out movie houses in the holiday season of 1939, Ninotchka was a runaway success and became, the critics declared, an instant classic, still popular today. It was only upstaged by Gone With the Wind, which walked away with a trove of Academy Awards that Ninotchka had also been nominated for.

Lubitsch would die in the 1940s. Garbo only made one film after Ninotchka. Her European audience had disappeared during the war.

Wilder went on to make twenty-five films — many of them also declared classics. In 1950, he cowrote and directed Sunset Boulevard, cauterizing the Hollywood film business. Louis B. Mayer, then the most powerful man in that city, loudly attacked Wilder, also sitting in the audience, shouting for all to hear: “We should hosewhip this Wilder. . . . he should be sent back to Germany!” Whereupon, the story goes, Wilder stood up and yelled back, “Yes. I directed this picture Mr. Mayer. Why don’t you go fuck yourself!”

In 1960 Wilder’s The Apartment would win three Oscars. It, like Sunset Boulevard, was a profound attack on American capitalism. Wilder had taken a biting look, in addition, to the US role in postwar Europe. But it was Ninotchka that set him up to use his particular sensibility, developed over painful decades of uncertainty and violence.