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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo is remembered as one of the shining stars of 20th century Hollywood, known for her subtle but powerful approach to the art of acting. Cited by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest female actors in the history of cinema, the legacy of Greta Garbo is defined by fantastic films by pioneering directors.

Born in Sweden, Garbo was an introverted child who discovered her love for the theatre at an early age. While she did not attend high school, Garbo eventually studied acting at the Royal Dramatic Training Academy and was subsequently cast in a fantastic production by Mauritz Stiller which proved to be pivotal for her career.

After travelling to the US without any knowledge of English, Garbo became a dominant on-screen presence in the silent era. In later years, she made the transition to sound films and maintained a highly successful acting career during that period as well. As a tribute to the legendary actress, we have explored some of her definitive roles.

Check out the list below.

Greta Garbo’s six definitive films:

The Saga of Gösta Berling (Mauritz Stiller, 1924)

The film that proved to be the breakthrough for Garbo’s career, The Saga of Gösta Berling is a highly competent adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf’s debut novel. A true gem from the silent cinema of Sweden, Mauritz Stiller delivers a serious dramatic work.

The narrative revolves around a priest who is stripped of his rank because of his highly inappropriate lifestyle which raises objections and concerns. Garbo stars as Elizabeth Dohna, a woman who was once a duchess and now becomes a crucial aid to his journey towards redemption.

Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, 1926)

Garbo worked with Clarence Brown on multiple occasions but this 1926 masterpiece is definitely the apotheosis of their collaborations. Based on a novel by Hermann Sudermann, Flesh and the Devil is an example of brilliant acting as well as cinematography.

The film features Garbo as the wife of an influential count who engages in an affair with a young man. When her husband finds out, a challenge for a deadly duel is issued. William H. Daniels’ cinematography and the powerful visual narrative plays a huge part in sustaining the film’s magic.

Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932)

An interesting pre-Code project by Edmund Goulding, Grand Hotel focuses on a luxurious hotel that is inhabited by extremely different individuals. The dramatic momentum of the film’s narrative is based on the vastly different lives of the hotel’s guests.

Garbo is sublime as Grusinskaya, a Russian ballerina whose career has been subjected to a tragic decline in recent years. One line of dialogue delivered by Garbo has become extremely iconic because many believe it is a reference to her own reclusive lifestyle: “I want to be alone.”

Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933)

The fourth and final collaboration between Garbo and John Gilbert, Rouben Mamoulian’s film stars Garbo as the Swedish Queen Christina and explores her remarkable life in fascinating ways. One of Garbo’s greatest on-screen performances, Queen Christina is noteworthy for various reasons.

The film traces the unique trajectory of the Swedish queen who had to take the throne at the age of six before establishing herself as an influential leader. Queen Christina depicts the monarch’s devotion to her country as well as her experience with forbidden love.

Camille (George Cukor, 1936)

Another fantastic performance by Garbo, Camille features the actress as a courtesan in 19th century Paris who finds herself in an extremely difficult spot. Caught between the earnest love of a young man and the obsessive control of a baron, her health begins to deteriorate.

For her brilliant work, Garbo picked up a Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards but that’s nothing compared to the historical significance that her acting as well as the film have achieved in the years that have followed since its release.

Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939)

For film fans, the idea of an Ernst Lubitsch film starring Greta Garbo is the stuff of dreams. Luckily, Garbo featured in one of Lubitsch’s greatest films – Ninotchka – which garnered attention from critics because it was her first role in a comedy.

With a screenplay that was co-written by the likes of Billy Wilder, Ninotchka is a truly delightful work by Lubitsch. Garbo plays the titular figure of a stern Russian beauty who eventually falls in love with a man whose values are completely contradictory to her own.