Greta Garbo and what we sacrifice for love

March 7, 2016

I have been thinking about the value of devotion and sacrifice after attending a special screening of Love, Edmund Goulding’s 1927 classic movie, at the Royal Festival Hall. The film, starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, was accompanied by a new score from Aphrodite Raickopoulou. This was played with haunting intensity by violinist Vadim Repin and the Philharmonia Orchestra, as a fabulous opening event for the UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature.

Love is a re-telling of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy’s tragic and tormented heroine. In the novel and the original movie, Anna loses her status and family thanks to her adulterous love for the officer Count Alexis Vronsky. In the end, she throws herself under a train.

But in Love, Garbo’s aristocratic Russian is granted a happy ending, much to the relief of the audience. We see her first sacrifice her relationship with her son Sergei, and then with Vronsky himself, both acts undertaken because she wants to spare them the shame of being saddled with her reputation. But instead of dying, she is reunited with both at the end of the movie.

As the film played out to its climax, we in the audience were wrapped in Vadim Repin’s seraphic purity, the score itself a tribute to spiritual Russia.

Should Anna have died in this version? I was happy she didn’t. I felt she deserved a second chance at love, not least as she displayed an attitude to love which was generous and honest. For example, she plainly loved her son as much as Vronsky. On screen, the director reveals this by having Garbo kiss both son and lover on the mouth; it rather shocks the audience.

What I believe is being conveyed here is that her capacity for love is infinite. “The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care,” as Emily Dickinson says.

Some might say that Garbo’s devotion to her Sergei and to Vronsky is love at its purest, and that the only way she can demonstrate this is by making the ultimate sacrifice – of dying for them. But is such a sacrifice the most loving act? Surely, it would have hurt Sergei and Vronksy, rather than saving them. They might have been left feeling guilty and desolate, not relieved.

I like to think Garbo’s actions were not predicated on a desire to prove her love in such a dramatic way or indeed, from a desire to make everyone else happy. I believe her behaviour stemmed from strong self-respect. She chose not to hold on to either relationship at any cost. Instead she waited for the universe to bring back her happiness.

Showing respect for yourself is the basis of healthy love, and in my view personal honesty is more powerful and more caring than self-conscious acts of devotion or sacrifice.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation