Ninotchka (1939)

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Communism: A Load of Bolshevik

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Does communism have a moral equivalency to Nazism? Conservatives have long complained of a double stand for Nazi and communist crimes. Nazism is based on heinous sounding ideas; communism is based on nice sounding ideas. However that makes communism and left wing radicalism more appealing to people of good intentions and perhaps that makes communism more dangerous and an evil in disguise. I’m undecided on this question myself but regardless of which ideology is worse there is one thing I’m certain about: communism sucks and the fact that it has nowhere near the reputation of Nazism is disturbing. This is an ideology which was responsible for the deaths of 100 million in the 20th century yet I am able to buy t-shirts featuring its dictators in pop culture stores.

The 1939 Ernst Lubitish directed and Billy Wilder penned comedy Ninotchka is reflective of this lack of morally equivalency between Nazism and communism despite the film clearly being anti communist (apparently the film was responsible for communists losing an Italian election in 1947). The scenes in Ninotchka which take place in Russia are grim. The complete censorship of information, the regimented support of the regime, the asphyxiating and claustrophobic living conditions, rationed food, fear of spying neighbours and the overall lack of personal freedoms. Yet despite critique such as this which the film levels against communism, Ninotchka does not present communism as the utterly monstrous belief system that Hollywood suggested Nazism was. When I first watched Ninothcka as a politically lay viewer that’s the impression I got – “communism isn’t great but Nazism is worse”. That’s not to say Ninotchka would be so much better a film if it went the full throttle and showed us the gulags and mass starvation but would a film like Ninotchka transposed to Nazi Germany ever get made with the same comic and tonal approach, one which doesn’t go the full throttle by mentioning concentration camps and persecution of Jews and other minorities. Would it even be morally appropriate to do so? – Food for thought.

One of the ways in which Ninotchka jabs at the Soviets is through the Russian characters skewered thinking. In the opening scene the three comrades on a mission in Paris attempt to justify choosing an expensive hotel over a cheap one because apparently it’s what Lenin would have wanted and refusing to simply admit they really just want the royal suite (“but who said we had to have an idea”). In another scene in the film Ninotchka explains why Soviet Russia is “peddling our precious possessions to the world at this time”. She goes onto say, “Our next year’s crop is in danger, and you know it. Unless we can get foreign currency to buy tractors, there’ll not be enough bread for our people and you comrades.” As if tractors could overcome a drought and famine. Likewise there is Leon’s (Melvyn Douglas) statement in regards to Russia, “I’ve been interested in your five-year plan for the last 15 years”.

I do find much of the Ninotchka’s first 18 minutes prior to the introduction of Garbo to be a bit flat even with some humorous scenes in which the three comrades are being seduced by capitalistic decadence and start fawning over Leon. The setting up of the background behind the jewels as a plot device and the scenes between Melvyn Douglas and Ina Claire are not terribly interesting. Once Garbo appears however, the film is on fire.

Greta Garbo is not one of my favourite actresses but I totally understand the appeal. Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova Envoy Extraordinaire is one badass. She claims to have been a sergeant in Third Cavalry Brigade and she is certainly one with the ability to convince the uninitiated to communist ideals. Lines such as “I have heard of the arrogant male in capitalistic society” and “That’s no business, that’s social injustice” don’t sound too different from talking points by modern lefties. Ninotchka is driven by facts and statistics in comparison to Leon who is more driven by emotion (although I guess the fact of communism’s failure is one for her to ignore). The Soviet State as represented by the figure of Ninotchka is genuinely concerned with the great mass of its people but it is so interested in their statistical well being that is has forgotten their emotional needs and has become cold, oppressive and inhuman. Garbo’s cold emotionless voice and her stone face are fully utilised in a faultless deadpan, comic performance. However when she finally laughs for the first time and unleashes her endearing side, it feels so genuine and uplifting. At the heart of romance in Ninotchka is that of love triumphing over opposing ideologies.

Ninotchka’s communist ideology does rub off on Leon as he becomes somewhat of a campaign socialist and humorously turns to violence in order to track down Ninotchka later in the film. As good as Melvyn Douglas is in the role of Leon, I can’t help but wish William Powell could have performed the role as no one does suave cynicism like Powell. Regardless Douglas does deliver one of my all time favourite set of movie lines in which he tells Ninotchka to just smile “At the whole ridiculous spectacle of life, at people being so serious”; I like to remind myself of this whenever I feel frustrated at the state of the world we live in.

One of the most interesting scenes in the film involves Leon’s butler Gaston (Richard Carle) telling his master about his concern regarding Ninotchka’s (or simply the Bolshevik Lady) influence over him;  Gaston as much as refuses to dust Leon’s copy of Karl Marx’s Capital as it is a socialistic volume. Gaston also mentions how Leon has not paid him two months in the movie suggesting that capitalism isn’t perfect; however Gaston finds the prospect of sharing belongings with Leon and being on an equal footing as him to be terrifying. By the end of the film neither Ninotchka nor Leon directly renounce communism but I doubt they will be returning to Russia any time soon.

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