Flesh and the Devil

I watched a silent film from 1927 called Flesh and the Devil, and I loved it

I have no knowledge of any other films from this period, but Flesh and the Devil seems like the height of silent film art. The orchestral score which “narrates” the entire film impresses me as an achievement which could mystify and delight on its own, but which as a score stands as a highly sophisticated tool of narration with a high level of difficulty. At some potentially cliché dramatic moments, the music proves itself. It does not sell out to the called-for emotion, does not cheesily swell and swoom in small-minded lockstep, but remains ambiguous.

Along with the music, the lighting effects and makeup work were led by the hands of true artists. You will see how brilliantly this film glamorizes the white faces of the three main characters. They are shown not as humans, but as archetypes, as models of behavior. I couldn’t get enough of the porcelain doll effect. I like movies that use lighting and set design to create an alternative to everyday reality. When I watch a movie, I want to enter an unfamiliar realm. Flesh and the Devil takes place in a whole new world, a misty, monochrome world full of beautiful, living porcelain dolls who speak without making sound. The absence of distracting pyrotechnics combined with the unfamiliar visual atmosphere created by an older style of lighting work to focus our attention on the intricacies of the action. The lighting of a match becomes a fireworks display; candles are biblical burning bushes. Looking back in time becomes a fantasy adventure.

To me, the thick white makeup acts as a barrier. If they look like dolls, they are dolls. They portray emotion, but they don’t actually have emotions. This should not discourage you. Their lack of emotion does not make them less than human; it makes them more than human. The dolls possess the permanent indifference of a higher life form. They are beyond human.

Greta Garbo (pictured above) is a deceiver by instinct, a beautiful mystery. In the film at age 21, her expressions are as sophisticated as the musical score. She gives nothing away cheaply. Despite the naturalness, the feathery waves of her barely shoulder-length hair, and her rather pedestrian nose and chin, she is still able, through her dark eyes and pursed lips which part to show her prominent front teeth, to do full justice to her shadowy character, a femme fatale who cannot make up her mind. Her face shows the struggle she goes through to keep her burdened eyelids from falling down. Notice the energy in her fatigue. Garbo’s facial contours are exceptions to the chubby cheeks of her contemporaries like Clara Bow and her costar Barbara Kent. Garbo modernizes female beauty. She invites, but she doesn’t smile. She doesn’t reassure. Hers is a beauty without humor, without warmth. When at the end of the film her accidental death resolves the conflict between the two friends, as she sinks forever under the ice, I could not mourn her loss. She was beyond that too. Her cold beauty, her ungrateful, spoiled attitude put her beyond sympathy.

This is the first full-length silent film I’ve seen. I am no film aficionado or member of a cult. But I understand now why there is a cult. It comes from the element of fantasy here, the visually unfamiliar and idealized world the viewer can escape into. This is not the fantasy genre, like Lord of the Rings, but an incidental visual fantasy experience (which goes beyond the difference between color and black and white) striking in its simple use of the physical over the verbal to convey emotion and thought. This simple human drama becomes a fantasy because it looks and feels so much different from movies as we know them. The films we watch, which mimic the visual reality we experience everyday, where people look like people, grass looks like grass, simply copy reality. They do not visually and technically alter it. Today’s films do not benefit from limitation. They do not choose to hide visual and auditory information in powerful ways as does Flesh and the Devil.

Take for instance the fact that Greta Garbo has no voice. Obviously none of the characters have voices, but take Garbo’s lack of a voice in particular. What a powerful, what a brilliant omission, to deny her a voice. Imagine all the horrible voices she could have. Think of all the beautiful women who were irresistible to your eye until they spoke like Mickey Mouse or Eor the donkey into your ear. Think of how you wanted to mute them. In this world all are on mute. All are equally free of burps and squeaks. Imagine how powerful Marilyn Monroe would be as a silent film star, as a mute, relieved of her breathy cartoon vowels. Maybe she would be too much, too hot for the silent screen.

I was also struck by the spare and disciplined use of the dialogue frames. The film, as is I suppose the silent film custom, would cut in and out of black backgrounds with words superimposed to convey conversations– the dialogue frames. These could have been used far more, but in my view to use them so sparely is more brilliant acceptance of limitations on the part of the filmmaker.  Many lengthy conversations go unexplained, leaving even more to the imagination, and more for the viewer to do as a participant.

How refreshed I was -- to see a film so dedicated to the basics, so intent on just telling the story in an understandable way – to see limitations and incompleteness embraced -- to see dignity win over vulgarity.

Many of my generation would laugh at the idea of watching this great, fascinating film, Flesh and the Devil, but it is a hollow, ignorant laughter, a laughter which shows both a typical flunky lack of curiosity and also an unthinking acceptance of the false axiom of corporate conformity enforcement – everything old is boring and irrelevant. I urge a different thought – everything new is highly suspect.