The Arty Semite

Greta Garbo’s Gay Jewish 'Svengali'

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
wiki commons

Greta Garbo, who died 21 years ago on April 15, is a permanent screen legend, as last year’s lavishly illustrated “Greta Garbo: The Mystery of Style” by Stefania Ricci from Skira Publishers, reminds us. Yet director Mauritz Stiller, who discovered Garbo and made her a star, remains an enigmatic figure, as “Nordic Exposures: Scandinavian Identities in Classical Hollywood Cinema,” out in October, 2010 from The University of Washington Press establishes.

Its author, Arne Lunde, teaches Scandinavian literature at UCLA. Lunde explains that Stiller, although he made a career in Sweden before moving to America, was born Moshe Stiller in Helsinki, Finland, to a Jewish family of Russian and Polish origins. Stiller fled his homeland to Sweden to avoid serving in the Russian army during World War I.

Stiller’s Judaism was commented upon in a 1933 Screen Pictorial account published in Britain, written by a former Swedish interpreter who worked with Garbo. The article describes Stiller as a Svengali-like figure — a familiar coded anti-Semitic stereotype — whose “hypnotic power… transformed the ordinary, obscure Swedish girl into the exotic star.”

Stiller is further characterized as “ugly, almost hideous in physical appearances. His body was ungainly, his features heavy, lined, gnome-like… In his veins flowed a mixture of Nordic-Slav-Jewish-Magvar blood — a chemical mixture sufficient to create almost any sort of explosion.

[Austrian Jewish director Josef] Von Sternberg [who discovered Marlene Dietrich] is also a strange racial mixture.” Unlike Sternberg, however, Stiller was gay, which placed him in yet another minority group. Stiller’s Hollywood films such as “Hotel Imperial,” Lunde intriguingly suggests, reflect “these multiple, ambivalent selves.” Tyrannical and with a poor grasp of the English language, Stiller squabbled with producers and alienated stars (he ordered one leading man to wear huge boots to make Garbo’s notoriously large feet look smaller by comparison).

Fired from MGM, Stiller died in 1928 at the age of 45, apparently of tuberculosis. Yet his influence continued through the German Jewish director Ernst Lubitsch, a fan of Stiller’s racy 1920 Swedish film “Erotikon,” and Lubitsch’s disciple, the Galician-born Jewish director Billy Wilder, who remade “Hotel Imperial” in 1943 as “Five Graves to Cairo.” Stiller’s legend lives on through historians such as Lunde and the British film critic Alexander Jacoby, as well as through a star on Hollywood Boulevard which, continuing the theme of Stiller’s confusingly complex identities, in 1960 first paid homage to a nonexistent Maurice Diller, until in 1988 this was finally corrected to Mauritz Stiller.

Watch a scene from Stiller’s 1924 hit “Saga of Gosta Berling” starring Greta Garbo.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Arne Lunde, Greta Garbo, Josef von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich, Mauritz Stiller, Stefania Ricci

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.