Magical Jews, Great Actresses, and Paranoid Anti-Semitism: On Greta Garbo and Her “Hypnotic” Jewish Agent

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Martin Luther – in one of his least friendly moments toward Jews – said that a “Jew is full of idolatry and sorcery as nine cows have hair on their backs, that is: without number and without end.”   Joshua Trachtenberg, in his book The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jews and its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism, argues that this belief still existed – during the 1940s, when he wrote this book – in the “backwards regions of Europe” where the Jew “continues to figure as a sorcerer in fables and nursery rhymes”(57).  According to one source that Trachtenberg cites, Jews are said to have  “some secret power which enabled them to suspend, or at least to interfere in, the normal processes of nature”(57).   Trachtenberg argues that Luther was not the first to come up with this notion of Jewish magic.  It is evidenced in “Hellenistic magical papyri” and in the Roman poet, Juvenal who wrote “The Jews sell at cut prices as many dreams as you wish.”   Origen, the early Christian theologian, argued that “magic was a specifically Jewish pursuit”(58).   And this trend took the hold of countless Christians in the Middle Ages who went so far as to claim that Jewish sorcerers “operated through the agency of Satan.  ‘The Master of diabolical art’”(66).   To be sure, the accusation that Jews were magicians was not based on “observed acts of Jews.” On the contrary, argues Trachtenberg, it was an integral part of the medieval conception of the Jews…the magic which Christendom laid at the door of the Jew…was a reflection of beliefs and practices current about Christians”(59).

When I recently came over a reflection on the 1932 MGM film, The Grand Hotel, by Douglas Messerli, I became very interested in the place of Greta Garbo in this film.  She plays an “aging ballerina who wants to be alone.”    In the signature Hollywood scene of her alone in her hotel room, we see a woman who hates herself and can’t play for people anymore.

As the viewer can see, she is stalked.  When he comes out of the shadows and tries to show his love for her, she has no interest.  She wants to be alone and, as the subtext suggests, die alone. And of all places to die, why not in the Grand Hotel in Berlin?

To be sure, Garbo had a mystical kind of presence.  Where did she get this from?

Garbo was Scandanavian.  Sven Hugo Borg, who was her translator, speculated on what the source of her magnetism was.  Drawing on this long history of paranoid projection on Jews, Borg claims that the man who “discovered” Garbo, Mauritz Stiller – a Finnish-Swedish film director of the early 20th century – was a Jewish magician of sorts who hypnotized people.   In his biography of Garbo, he makes this explicit in his description of Stiller:

Stiller was a strange man, an intelligent, cultured gentleman of exotic tastes and artistic passions. In his veins flowed a mixture of Nordic-Slav-Jewish-Magvar blood — a chemical mixture sufficient to create almost any sort of explosion. Von Sternberg is also a strange racial mixture. The two men were very much alike. 

Stiller was ugly, almost hideous in physical appearances. His body was ungainly, his features heavy, lined, gnome-like. His feet were so enormous as to be almost deformed, and his hands, huge, prehensile paws, fitted for the plough. Yet beneath this repellent exterior was hidden a soul both beautiful and artistic. 

The Swedish director searched for a beautiful puppet through whom to express his own artistic self, as did von Sternberg. It was common knowledge in Stockholm for years before he found Garbo. Even the story of that discovery, told in so very many versions, was in itself dramatic.

Garbo was, in other words, the puppet of the Jewish-magician-artist.  He had a “hypnotic influence” over Garbo and the implication is clear: her fame satisfied his desires and he accomplished through a kind of magic.   His description, above, makes it clear that Borg fantasizes Stiller through an anti-Semitic lens.  However, he does note that beneath his grotesque, “gnome-like” features was “hidden a soul both beautiful and artistic.”  This is a mixed reception.  It shares much with James Joyce’s reading of Leopold Bloom who – like Stiller – is depicted as very immersed in the body and materiality while at the same time possessing an artistic soul.  His consciousness – as Joyce’s novel, Ulysses illustrates – is beautiful.

Borg can’t understand Stiller.  He is a “strange man.”  Borg notes this at the end of a reflection he has with Garbo about how people thought she and Stiller were lovers:

”Borg, people say that I am in love with Mauritz, don’t they? That is not true. Borg, I have never been anything to any man, not even Mauritz. I do not love him that way, nor he me. I am afraid of him and I think we are finished as it has been before, although I shall always think he is the greatest man in the world. 

“You have seen me, Borg, sit on his lap and smoke with bins the same cigarette. You have seen him hold me like a child. It is so good when his arms are around me, for sometimes I am afraid. But it is not love, Borg.” And, in spite of all that has been said of Garbo’s love for Stiller, I believe her, for I have seen them often together. ,later, when Garbo and John Gilbert were “going places “ together, Stiller would cail me. 

“Borg,” his low, deep voice would rumble, have you seen Greta?” ”I have not, Mr. Stiller,” I would reply. Is there any message?” ”No,” he would rumble, “ except to tell her to remember what I have taught her never to let life hurt her.”  He knew that she was going about with Gilbert, and his attitude was not that of a jealous man, but of a father who would shield his daughter from hurt Stiller was a strange man. His artistic soul loved the finer, more subtle forms of passion, and it is doubtful if he ever loved a woman—any woman.

Borg can concede that Mauritz loves Garbo like a father and that he was not a jealous man, but he cannot imagine that he loves any women because “his artistic soul loved the finer, more subtle forms of passion.”

What was this strange passion?  Is it metaphyscial?  How could it be greater than any woman, especially Garbo?  This, reflects the anti-Semitic Garbo translator, gives Stiller an other-worldly status.  Jews, it suggests, can’t love.  They can only enjoy the experience of “finer, more subtle forms of passion.”  Here, the modern artist who creates Hollywood is conflated with the Medieval Jewish magician.   His magic, for Borg, has dark roots.  Borg insists it must have something to do with his Jewishness.

This stereotype has had a long life.  It is the anti-thesis of the schlemiel stereotype because it gives the agent power.  However, this power is diabolical. Here what is most diabolical and powerful is art itself.   The 19th century symbolist poet, Charles Baudeliare thought the same thing of the modern artist who, in his essay on laughter, is a magician.   Contrast this to Freud’s reading of the artist – which speaks to the schlemiel character –  as the “day dreamer.”  One is dangerous, the other, is comical.   Borg saw Stiller – and his Jewishness – in a more tragic sense.    While the anti-Semite can fantasize Stiller as a magician who is in control of everything, a schlemiel cannot, as Sander Gilman notes, control the world or himself.    These anti-Semetic fantasies of Jewish power have deep roots and they didn’t die with Borg’s commentary.   Perhaps the schlemiel can remind us how  ridiculous this fantasy is?

5 thoughts on “Magical Jews, Great Actresses, and Paranoid Anti-Semitism: On Greta Garbo and Her “Hypnotic” Jewish Agent

  1. I had mistakenly attributed Luther’s quote to my Catholic grandmother. She had said, at a garden party, that a “Jew is full of idolatry and sorcery as nine cows have hair on their backs, that is: without number and blogging without end, God help us.”

    Philosophy is like kissing Greta Garbo with a mouth full of marbles. You are always doing it wrong, but are people willing to watch you do it?

    • If people didn’t enjoy watching a philosopher do it wrong, why is Zizek so popular? I think that, like a novelist, what makes philosophy so interesting are it’s gaps, omissions, and misreadings. Harold Bloom has written much on this topic. For Bloom a “strong” writer is adept at misreading.

      • Zizek grew up in a small place. He is seeing culture born in a rose basket. He is a baby yet wearing little glasses. Zizek. I just read about him. Why did he not just stay grounded at home instead of getting lost in our forebrain? The philosopher preaches as a practice. The one who just practices is a sweet peach. Zizek is a necessary sour grape? He is superseeded? I dunno.

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