Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Ninotchka (1939)
Pages: (1) (2) (3) (4)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

To revive their depressed mood after their bout with Swana, Leon and Ninotchka drink another full glass of champagne together, after which he reassures her of the future of their relationship:

The only thing that will be over on Thursday will be the lawsuit. There will be no Thursday for us, next week or any other week. I won't let it happen. I'll tear it out of the calendar. Is that a good story?

They lift their glasses "to the loveliest story" she has ever heard, and then start toward the dance floor, where Ninotchka begins to feel the effects of the champagne. Tipsy and filled with a desire to incite the other "comrades" in the room, she drunkenly plans to address the crowd:

Comrades, comrades! (To Leon) I want to talk to my brothers...Don't shush me, please. I am People! I want to hold a speech. I want to overthrow the Grand Duchess!...Oh comrades! The good people of France!...Oh but they're all Grand Duchesses here...thousands of Grand Duchesses and I want to tell them.

Leon leads her away from the dance floor to the powder room, where he suggests she lie down and sober up with "some spirits of ammonia." He insists that there be "no speech." In the powder room, (its doors viewed from the outside), Ninotchka incites a group of attendants to strike, causing the manager to complain to Leon about her "spreading communist propaganda."

He brings an inebriated Ninotchka back to her Royal Suite in the hotel, carrying a bottle of champagne in a napkin. She has become his ardent lover - drunk, happy and in love for the first time. In the film's famous 'execution scene,' she is punished for betraying her Russian ideals and replacing them with love and kisses:

Ninotchka: ...Let's form our own Party.
Leon: Right. 'Lovers of the World Unite!'
Ninotchka (delighted): And we won't stretch up our arms...
Leon: No! No!
Ninotchka: ...and we won't clench our fists...
Leon: No! No!
Ninotchka: Our salute will be a kiss.
Leon: Yes...a kiss. Salute! (She sinks into his arms and they kiss.)
Ninotchka (still in his arms): I am so happy. Oh I'm so happy. (She sits down.) No one can be so happy without being punished. I will be punished and I should be punished. Leon, I want to confess.
Leon: I's the Russian soul.
Ninotchka: Well, everyone wants to confess and if they don't confess, they make them confess. I am a traitor. When I kissed you, I betrayed a Russian ideal. I should be stood up against the wall.
Leon: Would that make you any happier?
Ninotchka: Much happier.
Leon: All right.

So to fulfill her request to be shot as a traitor for betraying "a Russian ideal," he stands the tipsy Ninotchka up against a wall, blindfolds her with the napkin, and then removes the champagne bottle's cork with a loud pop. She reacts as if shot, sinking to the floor: "I've paid the penalty. Now let's have some music." She has made her choice between romance and duty. She asks what radio is, providing Leon with an opportunity to criticize capitalism:

Ninotchka: Radio. What's radio?
Leon: Radio is a little box that you buy on the installment plan and before you tune it in, they tell you there's a new model out.

Instead of going to the radio with round knobs to turn, Ninotchka and Leon open the combination lock of the safe door to the Duchess's jewels, so that they can admire them:

There they are. They're terrible things, those jewels...they are the tears of Old Russia...See that stone?...Sir Peter gave it to his wife Catherine the Great. For it, he sold ten thousand serfs in the market.

But Leon only wants Ninotchka to wear them: "Let me put this on you...You will teach these jewels. For the first time, they will learn how they can really look." Although Ninotchka objects ("they belong to the people,") Leon ceremonially crowns her with the sparkling diadem:

...I give them back to the people...I make you Ninotchka the Great...Duchess of the People!...Grand Duchess of the People!

After being crowned, Ninotchka plays along with the fantasy and asks - "Is this the wish of the masses?" and then delivers a coronation speech to an imaginary assembly of people:

Comrades! People of the world! The revolution is on the march! I know. Bombs will fall. Civilization will crumble. But not yet, please. Wait. What's the hurry? Give us our moment. Let's be happy. (To Leon) We are happy, aren't we, Leon?...So happy and so tired. Oh.

She falls asleep in his arms, and he gathers her up and takes her into the bedroom, where he places her on the bed (still in her evening gown with the diadem on her head). She begins sleeping soundly. He kisses her gently and then tiptoes from her bedroom. The love-struck Ninotchka stirs and awakens for a moment, briefly hums "The Internationale" (the Communist anthem), and turns to see the disapproving and stern face of Lenin in a framed photograph next to the bedside. She charmingly murmurs to him: "My little father, smile." The photograph of Lenin 'smiles' back at her in approval [her yielding to love has changed her 'political view' of the world].

At quarter to twelve the next day, Ninotchka, still lying on the bed in her evening gown and with a hangover, is awakened by the sound of the buzzer and the entry of the Duchess Swana into her bedroom. Although she notices Leon's hat carelessly lying on the floor, the purpose of her visit is not to pick it up or to find Leon there. Ninotchka insists that her uninvited guest leave:

Ninotchka: I must ask you to leave.
Swana: Leave? That's exactly what I came here to ask you to do. Leave! I don't mean this hotel and I don't mean Paris...I mean France. There's a plane for Moscow at five-forty.
Ninotchka (insultingly): Do you still think you're issuing orders from your palace in Petrograd?
Swana: My palace in Petrograd...yes, you took that away from me. You took away my Czar, my country, my people, everything I had...but nothing more.
Ninotchka: People cannot be taken away madame, neither a hundred and sixty million nor one. Not if you have their love. You hadn't. That's why you're not in Russia any longer, and that's why you came here this morning. Problems were never solved by bowing from a balcony.
Swana: Oh my dear, you don't know how impressive I could be. Did you ever see me in my regalia with my diadem and all my jewels?

Ninotchka puts her hand to her head, remembering the diadem from the night before - but it is missing. She looks in the direction of the safe, rushes to it, opens its door, and notices that the safe is empty. Carelessly forgetting to lock the safe the night before, Swana's "trustworthy friend," the Czarist spy Count Rakonin seized an opportune time and stole the jewels and returned them to the Duchess. Swana claims they are hers, although Ninotchka disagrees:

Swana: They were given to me by my mother. They were given to her by her mother, in fact they're mine, you can't steal what belongs to you!
Ninotchka: They always belonged to the Russian people. They paid for them with their blood, their lives and you'll give them back!

Swana argues that she will drag the issue of the jewel's ownership through the French courts, taking two years to do so. She speculates that the Russian government cannot afford to wait that long: "Two years is a long time for your comrades to wait...We could condense those two years to two minutes if you want to accept my proposition."

In a classic confrontational scene, the Grand Duchess proposes to give up her rights to the jewels if Ninotchka will immediately return to Russia on the five-forty plane without saying farewell to Leon (after closing the sale of the jewels to Mercier). Worried more about the loss of her lover (the Count) to Ninotchka than her own jewels, the Duchess proposes a desperate bargain - to give the Soviets the money from the sale of her gems if Ninotchka will immediately return to Russia. Ninotchka responds quietly: "That's not the way to win him back...not Leon." But she also knows that she has no other choice but to accept the Duchess's offer, and give up Leon for the good of her country.

Just at that moment, the phone rings - it is Leon. In a tragically painful conversation with him, Ninotchka conceals her predicament so that he won't suspect anything. She accepts a 7 o'clock dinner engagement, knowing that she will be gone by then. A bellboy enters with a large flower arrangement. Ninotchka puts the phone down and reads an attached letter - a love note from Leon:

...and Sweetheart, I have kept my first promise. I sent poor old Gaston to the market this morning and if you will look deep into the flowers, you will see what I got for him...

She reaches into the basket of flowers and pulls out a bottle of GOAT's MILK (For Health). She is both delighted and melancholy - she smiles sadly and then returns to the phone, thanking him for the "very silly and very wonderful" present and giving him a soft, final goodbye: "Salute!" Reluctantly, Ninotchka must accept Swana's proposition to leave the country on the next plane to Russia.

In Swana's apartment after Ninotchka has left the country, Leon admits with "brutal frankness" and "in one simple phrase" his love for Ninotchka. Cruelly, the Duchess informs him of Ninotchka's departure and that he is " about five minutes...Knowing the efficiency of the French Air Service, I think I can safely guarantee that Madame Yakushova has already taken off for Moscow." The Moscow-bound plane flies by the Eiffel Tower, with its passengers including Ninotchka and the three Russian emissaries. Smiling, Ninotchka cannot help but remember her personal experience at the Tower:

Yes, it is an amazing piece of engineering. Still the most remarkable iron structure in the world. Leading to the top there is a staircase of over a thousand steps...but there is an elevator included in the price of admission.

In the visa room at a travel bureau, Leon tries in vain to get a visa to follow Ninotchka to Russia. He confesses to a Bolshevik official that his reason to go to Moscow is personal: "I want to see a friend of mine, a very dear friend. It's a personal matter that has no relation to social philosophies or politics. It's a girl." The bureaucrat refuses to bend or be persuaded to give him a visa, even when Leon threatens: "If you don't let me in, I'll stand in front of this office of yours and warn people to keep away from Russia. I'll picket your whole country. I'll boycott you, that's what I'll do. No more vodka, no more caviar, no more Tchaikovsky, no more borscht." Leon decides he has a "better idea than that," punching the Russian in the jaw as he leaves the office.

The scene shifts to Moscow during a gigantic May Day Parade in Red Square, where Ninotchka is seen marching in uniform in a column of women. Her expression is stern and impassive - she has lost all evidence of individuality. After the ceremony, she returns to her crowded tenement house, trudging upstairs wearily. She shares her subdivided apartment with two other girls, a cello-player Anna (Tamara Shayne) and a streetcar conductor. Anna explains why she didn't march in the parade - she has been disgraced:

I'm in disgrace. Last week at the performance of Carmen, I played a sour note. The conductor got so excited he yelled, 'There is sabotage in the string section.'

Although she said she had an "inspiring day," sour-faced Ninotchka makes preparations for a small dinner party. She tells how she plans to serve an omelet:

Anna: Aren't you living a little above your ration?
Ninotchka: I've saved two eggs and each of my friends is bringing his own. We'll manage.
Anna: It just goes to prove the theory of our State. If you stand alone it means a boiled egg, but if you're true to the collective spirit and stick together, you've got an omelet.

Anna reminds Ninotchka that she should be more careful since returning from Paris, and pulls from the cupboard a shiny piece of lingerie - with a Paris label on it. Ninotchka's undergarment is something that Anna removed from the laundry yard where it created a commotion among the women earlier in the day:

Some said it's what we all ought to wear. Others said it's like hanging foreign ideas on our clothesline. It undermines our whole cause... You know how it is today. All you have to do is wear a pair of silk stockings and they suspect you of counter-revolution.

Ninotchka appears frustrated by the pettiness that surrounds her:

I should hate to see our country endangered by my underwear.

Ninotchka confides in Anna, and is pleasantly transported in her memories back to Paris - a time when she wore a fashionable hat, an evening gown, fancy lingerie, and a morning frock. She compares attitudes about clothing between West and East:

Ninotchka: That's how they live in the other world. Here, we dress to cover up our bodies, to keep warm.
Anna: And there?
Ninotchka: Sometimes they're not completely covered, but they don't freeze.

She offers her soft, silk-slip lingerie to the covetous Anna as her "wedding present" for her planned honeymoon. Anna leaves the apartment, with her cello in one hand, and the silky negligee stashed away for future use: "Am I going to play that cadenza tonight?," she exclaims. Ninotchka is left alone to search the dial on her Soviet radio to find music, but Western programming is non-existent. She murmurs sadly to herself: "No music."

She is reunited with the three emissaries, Buljanoff, Iranoff, and Kopalski, who arrive for dinner - they are warmly greeted by Ninotchka as "three scoundrels." On behalf of all of them, Iranoff thanks her for their lives: "If you hadn't given Commissar Razinin such a wonderful report about us, who knows what would have happened?" They reminisce fondly about Paris in their "Paris reunion," remembering the Royal Suite, the beautiful spring weather, the swallows, and Parisian style food. After their shared omelet dinner, they sit around the table in Ninotchka's room, while Iranoff plays a balalaika and they all sing "Paris."

A letter is delivered to Ninotchka - it's from Paris, from Leon. With great anticipation and expectancy, she opens the letter to herself, but her reaction is one of disappointment and heartbreak - tears form in her eyes. She shows her Russian friends the letter - all the writing is blocked out, line by line, except the first words of salutation and the final words of closing. Everything else is covered with a big CENSORED stamp:

Paris, April 23, Ninotchka, my darling...Yours, Leon.

The group realizes that it is late and says goodbye, sensing that Ninotchka wants to be alone. As Buljanoff leaves, he sensitively tells her: "They can't censor our memories, can they?" Ninotchka sits by herself at her table, her head cradled in her hands, sadly forlorn and still in love with Leon.

In Commissar Razinin's (Bela Lugosi) stark office in Moscow, now experiencing a winter snowstorm, Ninotchka delivers a folder of reports on her study of economic trading materials for the next four months. Razinin reveals that due to the recommendation he received from her report for their Paris mission, her three comrades were sent to Constantinople, Turkey to sell furs. But they have been unable to sell any fur (have they again become corrupted by Western civilization?):

If I told you what's going on in Constantinople right now, you wouldn't believe it. They are sitting there, those three, for six weeks and haven't sold a piece of fur...They are dragging the good name of our country through every cafe and night club.

Requesting her needed help one more time, Razinin immediately wishes to send Ninotchka there to verify his anonymous reports and straighten out the three easily-corrupted men. Although she objects: "Please don't send me...let me stay here...let me finish my work...I am in the rhythm of it now...I don't want to go away. I don't want to be sent into that foreign atmosphere again. It throws you out of gear," Ninotchka reluctantly agrees to do her duty and promises: "I shall do my best."

While waiting for her to arrive in the Turkish airport, her three delinquent comrades stand in the crowd, elegantly dressed and carrying a large bouquet of flowers to greet her - evidence of their continued misbehavior and capitalistic leanings. She is brought into their luxurious hotel suite where she faces the same situation she confronted and protested in Paris:

Ninotchka: You've done it again and I am responsible. How can you forget yourselves this way? You were sent here to make money, not to spend it.
Iranoff: Buljanoff, she still has those old-fashioned ideals.
Buljanoff: It is high time she got out of Russia.
Ninotchka: Comrades, I must be stern with you.
Kopalski (delighted): That's our old Ninotchka!

The three Russians laugh at the mention of the name of Razinin - happy that they are free again to say what they want. They both praise (and damn) non-Soviet society for the total freedom that they're allowed:

Buljanoff: Imagine, we don't have to whisper any more.
Iranoff: No, we can say whatever we want. We can shout...we can complain...Look. (He opens the door and speaks loudly into the corridor.) The service in this hotel is terrible! (He shuts the door.) See! Nobody comes...nobody pays any attention. That's freedom.
Buljanoff: That's bad management.

She learns that the Russian men plan to stay in Constantinople permanently - they are the proud owners of a restaurant that serves Russian food:

Iranoff: We have a wonderful electric sign: 'Dine With Buljanoff, Iranoff, and Kopalski.'
Ninotchka: You mean you are deserting Russia?
Kopalski: Oh Ninotchka. Don't call it desertion. Our little restaurant, that is our Russia, the Russia of borscht, the Russia of beef Stroganoff, of blinis and sour cream...
Iranoff: The Russia of piroshki, people will eat and love it.
Buljanoff: And we are not only serving good food, we are serving our country, we are making friends.

The three Russians, each with a gleam in their eyes, speak of their financial backing and the lure of the city:

Kopalski: There's something in Constantinople, something irresistible...
Iranoff: It is in the air, it may come around the corner when you walk down the street...
Buljanoff: It may step out of a bazaar, it may be waiting for you in a corridor, it may hide in the shadow of a minaret, and right now it's on the balcony.

Buljanoff points to the balcony, where Ninotchka, dumbfounded, sees Leon standing and smiling at her. He arranged for her to leave Russia, and is now waiting to surprise her:

They wouldn't let me in so I had to get you out.

Ninotchka expresses her joyful surprise that Leon masterminded everything: "So you're behind all this. I should have known." Leon takes her hand and kisses it. Trying to evade a definite decision, Ninotchka tells Leon: "I'm only here for a few days." Leon persuades her to stay with him - rather than return to Russia - and be his wife, by threatening to corrupt more Russians. Now, she decides to leave her country for good, for the sake of her heart's love ("personal interest").

Leon: All right, if you don't stay with me, then I'll have to continue my fight. I'll travel wherever there are Russian commissions. I'll turn them all into Iranoffs, Buljanoffs, and Kopalskis. The world will be crowded with Russian restaurants. I'll depopulate Russia. Comrade, once you saved your country by going back. This time, you can only save it by staying here.
Ninotchka: Well, if it's a choice between my personal interest and the good of my country, how can I waver? No one shall say Ninotchka was a bad Russian.
Leon: Darling.

They kiss in the happy ending, and the scene dissolves to the restaurant sign that reads:

Dine With
& Kopalski

Kopalski's name, however, is not illuminated by the electric lights. The camera pulls back to show people eating in front of the restaurant next to the sidewalk. Ostracized by his comrades and engaged in protest, Kopalski is picketing the place and wearing a placard sign that reads:

Unfair to

He turns as the film fades to black.

Previous Page