The subject of Mata Hari, the WWI Javanese-Dutch spy, was not new to film, but when Garbo agreed to play the role of the beautiful exotic dancer who traded sex for secrets, it was not only news but also cause for MGM to produce a lavish and memorable film. We first see the German spy in
Paris, posing as a dancer. Her spymaster, Stone, directs her to intercept certain Russian messages involving Allied troop movements. For some time Garbo has been having an affair with Barrymore, an indiscreet general, but she meets Novarro, a lowly lieutenant, and truly falls in love with him.
Then she learns that Novarro has the messages she is seeking and she betrays her love for him to serve her country, taking him to bed while her associates copy his messages. Barrymore learns of the tryst and explodes, threatening to turn Garbo in as an agent and implicate Novarro. To save herself
and her unwitting lover, Garbo shoots and kills Barrymore. When Novarro begins to seek out Barrymore, Garbo compels him to leave. The pilot flies to Russia where he is shot down and blinded. Learning of this, Garbo follows her passion rather than her military orders and goes to Novarro to tell him
of her devotion to him. Stone orders an agent to kill her, but the man is foiled by local police. Garbo is then unmasked and brought to trial.
Garbo is stunning, full of her special mystique as the exotic dancer-spy, in one scene wearing a revealing costume and snaking her body around a lascivious-looking, many-armed statue in an odd interpretive dance. Fitzmaurice directs with great style here and makes the most of the lavish production
techniques available to him. Both Garbo and Novarro had accents that later caused some critics to sneer, particularly at one of Novarro's lines which sounded like "What's the mata, Mata?" Of course, little shown here is based on real events. The historical figure, Gertrud Margarete Zelle MacLeod
(1876-1917), danced in Paris and stole secrets from the French for the Germans, low-level secrets at that, until she was uncovered as a spy and shot, not in Russia, but at Saint-Lazare in France on October 15, 1917.
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