Fragment #23: Rudolf Arnheim on Greta Garbo

“Suddenly, in the middle of an indifferent American society film, in the midst of nothing but actors dressed as people, amongst mustachioed lovers and despots and the polished faces of girls, a young woman descends the stairs, opens the door of her automobile, drops a bouquet of flowers, gazes for a moment with tender attentiveness into the face of the stranger who quickly picks it up, then reaches smiling for the flowers and has climbed in and is gone. And one is struck by a wretched feeling like a horrible shock, as though one had become completely enslaved to this woman. Who is this, for Heaven’s sake? It is Greta Garbo of Sweden.

With silent, swift steps she passes through the fidgety world of the screen, like a brook flows through a meadow; very slender, turning easily, quickly. A man walks down the street, and a soft white strip of fur snuggles to his side as though it were part of him – but it is Greta Garbo. When she stretches out her chin toward her lover, her eyelids and lips sink will-lessly: by giving herself to a man, she surrenders to her own being. Her nose and her upper lip are stretched forward a bit too much, sniffing and thirsting after all the desire the wind carries her – little irregularities on which men get hooked. Above her smile are the arched eyebrows like two circumflexes, meant to show that this smile is always imbued with quiet, sarcastic suffering. It is only when she looks at a man’s mouth that this woman suddenly becomes deadly serious, as though she were enjoying the sight of the sacraments. She starts a bit, lifting her gaze with childishly pious devotion, but also with feverish, breathless tension; we see through the darkly shadowed eyes as though we were gazing miles-deep into the interior of a crater; we witness the lava bubbling. And then she attacks her sustenance with ravenous lips, her long arms wrap themselves around the man’s shoulders, her naked fingers play through his hair, into his mouth, over his neck. Thus she makes an exciting sacrifice to love; thus she celebrates a festive orgy without any illegal undressing or obscenities, but with the usual, proper, boring means of the kiss and the embrace.

On quiet cat’s feet, her coat pulled tightly about her and her hands folded in her lap, Greta Garbo passes censorship. And every evening in the theatre, three hundred men are unfaithful to their wives.”

Rudolf Arnheim (1928) from Film Essays and Criticism. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. p.216-7.

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