Garbo’s Mata Hari just looks peculiar

It seems like it should be a great story. First World War. Female spy using sex to steal secrets. Executed in the end. Amidst all that? The devious user of love for espionage falls in love herself (as the movies would have it). The result, however, is not so much great as peculiar.

Mata Hari – stage name of Margaretha Geertruida “Grietje” Zelle (August 7, 1876 – October 15, 1917 (photo via Wikipedia).

Mata Hari (1931)

Directed by George Fitzmaurice (uncredited)

Mata Hari was the stage name of Margaretha Geertruida “Grietje” Zelle (7 August 1876, Leeuwarden – 15 October 1917, Vincennes), a Dutch exotic dancer, courtesan, and accused spy who, although possibly innocent, was executed by firing squad in France for espionage for Germany during World War I.


The 1931 movie of Mata Hari’s life, or at least the end of that life, was the perfect vehicle for Greta Garbo, the biggest and most enigmatic actor of the era.

She looks wonderful, though rather bizarre, in Mata Hari.

The movie came out roughly 14 years after the real Mata Hari was executed by firing squad for being a spy.

I think it is safe to say that while her name still has resonance today, at the time of the movie’s release the name, and story, of Mata Hari would have still been very uppermost in people’s minds.

The movie roots itself in the idea of Mata Hari, a female spy who uses her sexual allure in order to manipulate men and get secrets she can pass on to the German government (an enemy at the time because it was during World War I). And then she falls in love.

As one character states in the movie, “A spy in love is a tool that has outlived its usefulness.”

That is basically the story the movie tells: the woman who uses love as a tool is undone by falling in love herself.

The movie we end up with is pretty good, though I found the period stagy quality in performances a bit difficult to accept, particularly Ramon Novarro as Lt. Alexis Rosanoff. To a lesser degree, I found this with Garbo too (as well as other actors).

I’m not sure why I felt that way since I usually expect a certain amount of the over-the-top quality in what is played as melodrama in these older movies. But it came across as a bit too affected for me this time.

Greta Garbo as Mata Hari.

Perhaps my favourite part of the movie was Garbo’s clothing. The costume designer was Adrian and I’m not quite sure how he meant them to be taken.

He clearly had a thing for both skull caps and sequins. And trousers!

Garbo is striking in almost every scene with clothes that would be at home in both discos and stripper bars and, curious as they are, a nice contrast is struck at the film’s end with the very basic, simple and black costume that drapes her.

I haven’t seen enough movies with Greta Garbo to place Mata Hari as far as comparative merit goes in terms of either performance or overall film, but of what I’ve seen this would not be a standout. I found it more interesting in an academic way and as a curiosity.

It is an intriguing movie to look at; it has rooted itself in a great story; it’s not terribly engaging to watch, however.

As Mata Hari: Greta Garbo constumed by Adrian.

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