A bulky, verbose novel by Herman Suderman was the source for the exquisitely silent Flesh and the Devil. On leave from the Austrian army, lifelong friends John Gilbert and Lars Hanson return to their loving families. At a reception in Hanson's honor, Gilbert makes the acquaintance of the hauntingly beautiful Greta Garbo, whom he'd previously glimpsed for a few fleeting seconds at the railway depot. Those few seconds were enough to thoroughly captivate Gilbert, thus paving the way for a feverish sexual liaison with Garbo. Gilbert is shocked to discover that Garbo is married to aristocrat Marc MacDermott, who challenges Gilbert to a duel--on the proviso that the "official" reason for their argument is a disagreement at cards, so that McDermott will suffer no disgrace. Gilbert kills the husband on the field of honor; as punishment for his unmilitary conduct, he is "invited" to accept a post in Africa. Honoring his promise to the late McDermott, Gilbert reveals his love of Garbo to no one, not even his dearest friend Hanson. As he departs for his five-year exile, Gilbert asks Hanson to look after the "bereaved" Garbo. Pardoned after three years, Gilbert returns home, only to discover that Garbo has remarried--to Hanson. Minister George Fawcett, evidently the only person to know of Gilbert's tryst with Garbo, advises Gilbert to give up his friendship with Hanson so as to avoid the temptation of cuckolding his best friend. But when Hanson falls seriously ill, Garbo begs Gilbert to renew the friendship. He does so, not suspecting that Garbo merely wants to trap him in her web again. Gilbert is caught in a compromising position by the distraught Hanson; he regretfully challenges Gilbert to a duel, to be fought on their favorite childhood playing site, "The Island of Friendship". As Hanson nervously aims his weapon at the repentant, unresisting Gilbert, he realizes that he can't go through with the duel. The two friends embrace, begging one another's forgiveness...while Garbo, who has belatedly headed across the frozen lake to prevent the duel, comes to an icy end. While the overly intense "male bonding" between John Gilbert and Lars Hanson tends to evoke knowing chuckles when seen today, Flesh and the Devil otherwise holds up quite well. Clarence Brown's innovative directorial touches still seem fresh after years of imitation by lesser talents. Ostensibly a John Gilbert vehicle (he receives sole over-the-title billing), Flesh is utterly dominated through sheer force of personality by the divine Garbo; in anyone else's hands, her enigmatic, impulse-driven temptress would have been just another cardboard vixen.
by Hal Erickson synopsis