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Film History: An International Journal 18.1 (2006) 6-20

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Becoming democratic:

Satire, satiety, and the founding of West Germany

By far the most celebrated scene in Ernst Lu-bitsch's Ninotchka (MGM, 1939) takes place in a working-class bistro in pre-World War II Paris. The film's eponymous central character, the Soviet Special Envoy Extraordinary played by stoic Greta Garbo, joylessly sips her fish soup as her Parisian seducer, Leon (Melvyn Douglas), plies her with clichéd jokes, hoping to elicit some sign of conviviality that Bolshevism has apparently suppressed. While his deliberate attempts to humor her fail, he unwittingly succeeds when he pushes away from the table in exasperation and falls backwards out of his chair. Lubitsch cuts from Leon collapsed on the floor, to the bistro's guffawing working-class patrons, to Ninotchka who, like Garbo herself (so the publicity goes), laughs robustly for the first time on screen. In fact, Ninotchka's derisive laughter initiates her progress from a dispassionate, affectless communist to a fully embodied, consuming capitalist who not only laughs, but eats, drinks, and finds romance. Once stripped of her political pretensions, she is, we are led to believe, really just like us. For some reviewers Ninotchka's sensual turn attested to the film's generous humanism. Writing for the New Republic, for example, Otis Ferguson found that the 'meeting-of-East-and-West' humor marked Ninotchka as 'the first movie with any airiness at all to discover that Communists are people and may be treated as such in a story'.1 Yet precisely when these communists reveal their humanity, they stray from the austerity of Moscow's belt-tightening regime. In a sly reversal of Marxist causality, the sensate body deprived under communism is naturally drawn back to capitalism's abundance. In the film's final scene Stalin's model citizen, awakened to capitalism's carnal allure and amorous freedoms, defects, joining Leon and her three corrupted (defected) comrades in Istanbul.

Ninotchka's US premiere was greeted with enthusiastic notices for Garbo's comic reinvention under Lubitsch's elusive touch, and The New York Times ran two features specifically on the film's audiences, whose laughter so overwhelmed the theater that the dialogue was nearly inaudible.2 Noting the film's wild success, the Hearst-owned New York Daily Mirror declared that 'Garbo does more in one line to debunk Soviet Russia than we have been able to do in a hundred editorials'!3 It is perhaps, then, little wonder that this satire of communism, made on the eve of World War II, became the centerpiece of America's official Cold War propaganda campaign, not in the US, but in Western Europe where, Americans feared, communism vied as a postwar alternative to fascism and Nazism and seemed to offer quick solutions to the many privations of the war-torn region.

Ninotchka's case against communism was felt to be so persuasive that at the State Department's request the film made its controversial Italian debut during the 1948 national election.4 In Allied-occupied Germany that same year Ninotchka was the US Military Government's antidote to communism and Soviet anti-American propaganda. Newspapers in the Soviet sector of Berlin reported that the film version of the stage play The Russian Question (Russkii vopros, Mosfilm, 1948) was about to be released in the entire Eastern zone of Germany. The [End Page 6]

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Figure 1
Promotional Poster for Ninotchka (MGM, 1939). [Poster courtesy of MGM/Photofest.]

play concerns an American journalist who is harassed by the corporate media when he tries to tell the truth about life in the more enlightened Soviet Union.5 The film, however, embedded damning newsreel footage of U.S. unemployment lines, brutal strikebreaking, and the persecution of African Americans. In response the US authorities rushed prints of Ninotchka to Berlin and then to the Western zones of Germany as part of a larger information campaign.6 Noting that even the Western Allies (France and Britain) were more inclined...


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