The title card of Flesh and the Devil trumpets itself as a vehicle for John Gilbert, king of the romantic leading men at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (and even just a couple of years into its formal existence, the lavish MGM was not going to cut corners on its romantic leads), leaving the pair of recent Swedish imports Greta Garbo and Lars Hanson relegated to merely "with" status below the title. But anybody watching the film can tell in an instant that it's not Gilbert's movie - it's Garbo's. Director Clarence Brown, who would work with Garbo six more times, certainly got that, piling one rapturous close-up on the actress after another, frequently leaving both of her co-stars on the edges of scenes in a story where, by any measure, they are both more important than she is. Gilbert definitely got it; he'd become instantly enraptured with the star, kicking off one of those Hollywood in the '20s myth-romances that are best precisely because of how ridiculous the details can get in the retelling (they'd co-star four more times; the last of them in the sound era, as part of Garbo's last-ditch attempt to keep his career afloat when studio politics - and not a legendary but nonexistent vocal squeak - scuttled his career).

And audiences got it: the film was Garbo's third in her American debut year of 1926, and the one whose gigantic box office presence (in the uncertain world of 1920s box office reportage, it fairly consistently gets cited as being one of the year's top five hits), and set her up as one of the most shimmering, glowing stars in the cinema firmament. This status she would never relinquish; some of her films would be less popular than others, and a few would lose money, but it would be due almost entirely to her own fatigue and insecurity, and not at all because she wasn't in demand, that she retired from the film industry in Hollywood or anywhere else after 1941 (the war didn't help either - like Michael Bay after her, Garbo tended to require international markets to help her massively costly productions turn a profit).

And now, separated by generations and human lifetimes, it's still easy to get it. Garbo was terrifyingly complete: some of the most sophisticated and nuanced acting of the late silent era (and it wasn't even in silents that she did her best work) wearing one of the most gorgeous, camera-commanding faces that cinema has ever known. Even now, decades after we've been able to put literal, unsimulated sex scenes in respectable movies, there have been only a meager number of performers who were Garbo's equals in communicating the psychology of sexuality so clearly: not merely the lust and passion that a thousand actors could gin up in every era, but a very clear, tangible thoughtfulness, the self-awareness of desiring and enjoying sex. Cultural mores have as much to do with talent in explaining why we don't see more of that in film, particularly in the case of women, but sometimes lightning will strike and we end up with an actor like this, who could communicate so much by the speed of her responses, the way she presents herself with calculated aloofness to her co-stars, and especially the sheer volume of expressions she could evoke through her hugely elastic eyes.

Flesh and the Devil presents Garbo as the quintessential wicked woman out of melodrama, unfaithful to no fewer than three men and deeply unconcerned when the first of them dies because of it. And yet Brown cedes so much of the movie to her perspective, and Garbo so exactly delineates the complexity of each emotion to leave her character as a feeling person and not a devouring spider, that it's really hard to watch the film and say, "she's no good and she should get what's coming to her". Even the film's SPOILER IF YOU DON'T KNOW THE RULES OF SILENT MELODRAMA factory-produced moral ending that finds Garbo dying alone for her sins can't bring itself to play her death as just (it's shocking and haunting), not least because it is the direct result of her doing the only "good" thing she does all movie.

But anyway, while it's Garbo's movie, it's also a movie entirely about everything but Garbo, and it turns out be a pretty damn fantastic one on the non-Garbo merits. Adapted from Hermann Sudermann's novel, The Undying Past by screewriter Benjamin F. Glazer, the film opens in an Austria army camp, where childhood friends and inseparable colleagues Leo von Harden (Gilbert) and Ulrich von Eltz (Hanson) train together, cover for each other, share in each other's punishment, and generally act as emphatically, aggressively homosexual as is even slightly plausible for two characters who will both end up fucking Greta Garbo before the movie is out. Leo's turn comes first; while on a furlough week home to visit his mother (Eugenie Besserer) and Ulrich's sister Hertha (Barbara Kent) - the latter of whom his unofficial future wife in the eyes over everyone in town - he spots the devastatingly gorgeous Felicitas (Garbo) at the train station. At a ball in the boys' honor, he approaches her for a dance and goes home with her, all in the same passionate trance; it's only late that night, drunk on lovemaking, that he meets her husband, Count von Rhaden (Marc McDermott), and it's immediately understood that they will duel to settle the matter, though the count insists that to protect his reputation after he kills the boy, they tell everyone, even their seconds, that it was over a disputed card game. Because the 19th Century was FUCKING MESSED UP.

Things go wrong when, at the end of a duel that is one of the most gorgeously Impressionist things I have seen in an American silent, all grey silhouettes and compositions cramped at the bottom of the frame, Leo ends up killing von Rhaden. The law is the law, and he is no criminal, but the rules are the rules, and he's a liability to everybody. He's immediately sent on military exile to a post in Africa for five years, begging Ulrich to take care of the widow he has made of Felicitas, even now implying it's his guilt over killing her husband alone that drives him. So it's his own damn fault, really, when at his return three years later - Ulrich having been tirelessly advocating for him - he finds that his best friend and the femme fatale of his dreams have gotten married. It looks thrillingly happy; Ulrich certainly plays it that way. But Felicitas makes very little effort to hide from Leo that she is in the marriage mostly for the von Eltz fortune, and she'll leave on the spot if he wants her to. For she professes, at least, that she adores and craves Leo as much as he adores and craves her, and given the intensity of the real-life porking happening between Garbo and Gilbert, the actors have an easy time convincing us of their sincerity.

Gaudy, tawdry, tragic balderdash; but a sublime central trio puts it over so quickly and potently that it took all of my attention to even notice the contrivances, after which I certainly had no energy left to call those contrivances into question. The casting here really is impeccable: each leg of the triangle has its own specific dynamic and striking chemistry; Garbo and Gilbert's desperate, hormonal urgings, obviously; Garbo and Hanson's more cagey, play-acted relationship is pretty great itself, though (the two co-starred in 1924's Saga of Gösta Berling), with Hanson's preening joy and Garbo's canny pretense of love cutting against each other neatly. The film relies most on Gilbert and Hanson's intense homosocial bond, though; and I use that word only because it's not really culturally accurate to say that two men passionately in love with each other in Europe in the 19th Century are necessarily or even probably in erotic love, though it would take a spectacularly disciplined modern viewer to keep their gaydar from shooting off into the red by the end of the first reel.

The point being, the three actors start selling it and keep selling it and despite Brown's obvious, understandable, and dramatically defensible (if unconventional) preference to stage the movie around Garbo, the director does exceptional work in balancing the flux of emotions as they play out in various combinations of people. If melodrama is about the easy access to rich, primal feelings, well then, Flesh and the Devil is a master melodrama; the longing glances and the almost physical expressions of pleasure and loneliness keep coming until the last beat of the movie's 112 minutes. And it includes one of the most gloriously sordid, fleshy, erotic moments of the decade, as Felicitas pointedly rotates a Communion chalice to place her lips on the rim where Leo took his sip of wine, with Garbo's look both transporting and fervently in the moment.

In between the great character moments, Brown and cinematographer William H. Daniels stage some terribly elegant compositions throughout (it is the most visually accomplished of Brown's films that I have seen), using depth and shadow box-like stagings to give a sense of stateliness to the proceedings, but also of social constrictivness; this is a fussy, precise movie about a fussy, precise place, where the frenzied, messy feelings between Leo and Felicitas can only be destructive. On a more immediate and practical level, the use of depth lets the filmmakers quickly, dramatically demonstrate the relationships of the main three characters: the are separated from each other by a distance; they are near to each other; they are in tight embrace and we are enjoined to get right next to them and take part in their intensity; they embrace, but we are removed so that they might have the moment to themselves. And so on. You could call it simple and even programmatic stuff, but then, more people ought to do things like it, if it was so gosh-damned simple. Because whatever it is, it's effective as hell.

Not a film to all tastes - it is lustfully melodramatic - and more a sign of Garbo's raw potency than a demonstration of the peerless heights of acting and sex she'd reach in her sound masterpieces, Flesh and the Devil is pretty altogether terrific regardless. The fact that this is basically a well-made genre film and still triumphs in so many ways speaks volumes of the level of accomplishment that the Hollywood silent aesthetic was beginning to approach as the mid '20s started their shift into the late '20s; still, you could watch a lot of very fine movies from that period and not come up with too many as robust and gorgeous and achingly, desperately full of feeling and desire. It's trite but could not be more true: they do not make 'em like this anymore, and even when they did, the results were rarely this emphatic and grand.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1926
-Buster Keaton makes the Civil War comedy masterpiece The General
-The now-lost Aloma of the South Seas is one of the biggest hits of the era
-The seminal war comedy What Price Glory?, directed by Raoul Walsh, opens

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1926
-Lottie Reiniger creates the earliest surviving animated feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, in Germany
-Soviet director Vsevelod Pudovkin makes his feature narrative debut with Mother, one of the masterworks of Soviet Montage
-The hit German adventure epic The Holy Mountain stars, in her acting debut, future director/propagandist Leni Riefenstahl