Leo (Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hanson) are childhood friends and soldiers in the Kaiser's army. Gilbert falls in love with the exotic, mysterious Felicitas (Garbo) only to find out that she's a married woman. When her husband discovers the affair events take a tragic turn and the Army ships Leo out to Africa. He comes back to find out that Felicitas has married Ulrich.
Flesh and the Devil was a huge hit and a milestone in the careers of both Garbo—this was her Star-Making Role in America—and director Clarence Brown. It was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2006.
This film provides examples of:
- Childhood Friend Romance: Hertha is clearly besotted with Leo but he only has eyes for Felicitas.
- Dances and Balls: Leo first glimpses Felicitas at the train station, but he properly meets her at the big ball that Ulrich is hosting.
- Duel to the Death: Leo and Count von Rhaden, after von Rhaden catches him with Felicitas. A second duel between Leo and Ulrich is averted.
- Gold Digger: Felicitas. It's implied that she was a Trophy Wife for Count von Rhaden. After Ulrich gives her a gaudy bracelet covered with diamonds, she tells Leo that she can't leave her life of luxury, and suggests that they simply carry on an affair.
- Homoerotic Subtext: Hard to say how much is intentional and how much is simple meant to be signs of Heterosexual Life-Partners, but Leo and Ulrich are shown (in a flashback to their childhood) to become Blood Brothers in a very wedding-like ritual, they often hug and caress each other in a very intimate way, calling each other things like "My beloved" and generally seems to be more interested in each other than in Felicitas.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Leo and Ulrich have gone to an island in a lake to fight a duel over Felicitas. She runs across the ice of the frozen lake to stop them—until she falls through and drowns.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Felicitas has an attack of conscience at the end of the film. It turns out to be a bad idea.
- No More for Me: The reverend, of all people, does this at the fancy ball, when he sees a pair of twins and believes he is seeing double.
- Reassigned to Antarctica: Or German Southwest Africa, as the case may be.
- Romancing the Widow: How Felicitas and Ulrich get together.
- She Is All Grown Up: When Leo returns he finds that Ulrich's spunky young sister Hertha has become a lovely young woman. He doesn't even recognize her at first.
- Sleeping Dummy: Done by Ulrich on Leo's behalf when reveille sounds in the morning and Ulrich finds out that Leo has not returned to the barracks from his all-night carousing.
- Smoking Is Glamorous: Brown gets a lot of mileage from the scene where Leo lights Felicitas's cigarette.
- Title Drop: It comes from the Book of Common Prayer.
- Throwing Out the Script: The reverend has a sermon on the theme "love thy neighbor" all ready to go, but after seeing Leo and Felicitas entering the church together, decides to riff on David and Bathsheba instead.
- Train-Station Goodbye: Played straight, right down to Hertha chasing after the train that is taking Leo away to his long exile in Africa.
- The Vamp: Felicitas, whose sexuality gets Count von Rhaden killed, ruins Leo's life, and nearly ruins Ulrich as well.
- Widow's Weeds: Felicitas is shown primping in front of a mirror. Then she puts on a veil, which is how the film lets the viewer know who won the duel between Leo and von Rhaden.