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A plot that's strung together out of bits of Lady of the Camellias! A director so obscure he doesn't even feature in film dictionaries! A leading lady who's best known for playing a robot! Would you believe me if I told you this was one of the all-time great films? More poignant and visually dazzling than Ophuls, more erotic and atmospheric than Sternberg. A camera more sinuously alive than Murnau or Lang.
Incredibly, the Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna is all that and more. The tear-stained story of a glamorous St. Petersburg courtesan (Brigitte Helm) who ditches her high-ranking officer lover (Warwick Ward) for a lowly sub-lieutenant (Francis Lederer) it's the best-known film of Hanns Schwarz - a sort of silent-era Douglas Sirk who made lush (and potentially soppy) women's melodramas but transformed them into something like High Art.
The opening sequence alone is enough to establish Schwarz as one of the all-time great directors. As an absurdly ornate rococo clock chimes the hour, the camera tracks through the boudoir of Nina Petrovna, elegant lady of the White Russian night. She rises from her lace-smothered bed, wafts her way out onto her snow-covered balcony. Every frame glows, as if spun out of polished silver. A troop of soldiers trudges down the street. One handsome youth gazes upwards. Their eyes meet...
From that moment on, tragedy is inevitable - as surely as in any play by Aeschylus or Euripides. Not that Schwarz isn't a master at teasing his audience...in their first intimate encounter, Nina and her young suitor play games of sexual cat-and-mouse but - explicitly - they do NOT make love. This whole sequence is blindingly erotic, provocative in a way no hard-core sex scene could ever be.
Apart from the forgotten genius of Hanns Schwarz, the great revelation in this film is Brigitte Helm. Best remembered for her dual role as a robot/revolutionary in Fritz Lang's 1926 sci-fi epic Metropolis, Helm was in fact a movie icon to rival Garbo or Dietrich. Indeed, Nina Petrovna reveals her as a full-fledged goddess - at a time when Dietrich was still a chubby starlet, posing astride a beer-barrel in The Blue Angel.
As the Nazis rose to power, Helm defied the regime by marrying a Jew. She retired from films, moved to Switzerland and settled into the life of a wealthy recluse. A tragedy, perhaps. Or perhaps not? On the strength of Nina Petrovna, Helm had already soared as high in Movie Heaven as a star could go. Did she simply have nothing left to prove?
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