Garbo and the Eiffel Tower

Yes, it is an amazing piece of engineering. Still the most remarkable iron structure in the world. Leading to the top, there is a staircase of over a thousand steps… but there is an elevator included in the price of admission.

It’s hard to overstate the extent of Ernst Lubitsch’s genius, and this moment toward the end of Ninotchka demonstrates just how economical, powerful, and witty his filmmaking could be. At this point, the lovelorn Ninotchka—once a hard-edged Soviet apparatchik—is headed back to Moscow, having been blackmailed into leaving Leon (Melvyn Douglas), the object of her affection, behind in Paris. Her bumbling companions note that they never visited the Eiffel Tower, and Ninotchka rattles off the above spiel, taken verbatim from the informational pamphlet she read earlier in the film while visiting the Tower herself (and being pestered/seduced by Leon).

The reason I find this short monologue so profoundly effective is that it deftly combines pathos and humor, but doesn’t compromise either of them. It’s just as funny as it is sad, and it’s very sad. She’s been torn away from the man she loves, the man who literally taught her to laugh, and may very likely never see him again. They’re in love, but belong to two different worlds—what’s sadder than that? Yet Garbo’s precise, delicate delivery of these seemingly heartless lines creates a humorous incongruity between style and content. Billy Wilder, who co-wrote Ninotchka, excelled at this kind of joke: turning dry, objective statements into clever jokes through rhythm and context. Lubitsch and Garbo pull it off flawlessly. Just look at the progression of Garbo’s expressions as she recites these lines:

Much of Ninotchkas comedic power comes from Garbo and the fact that she takes her role just as seriously as if she were playing Camille or Anna Karenina. She’s hilarious, but she’s still dignified and impassioned. She’s bringing all her dramatic skill with her to the character, and so scenes like this are poignant even while they’re resiliently funny. The comedy of “there is an elevator included in the price of admission” comes from how much emotional weight she invests in the line, especially since its tourist trap flatness follows the numerical quasi-poetry of “over a thousand steps.”

This is a scene where the stars aligned, and the actress matched perfectly with the writers, director, and subject matter. The end result is an utter delight to watch, and luminous piece of film history.

Yes, it is an amazing piece of engineering. Still the most remarkable iron structure in the world. Leading to the top there is a staircase of over a thousand steps…but there is an elevator included in the price of admission.

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