Two years before her first sound film, “Anna Christie,” Greta Garbo made 1928’s silent “The Mysterious Lady,” wherein she plays a Russian spy named Tania who falls in love with Karl, an Austrian officer played by Conrad Nagel. Garbo’s Tania uses Karl to gain valuable military information, but not before she spends a night with him and then they go off together for a day in the country. Later, on a train ride, Tania steals a portfolio of state secrets from Karl and vanishes into the night. The Austrians court-martial Karl and put him in prison for his rash stupidity.
Nobody wants to see Karl rot in prison, of course, so the plot takes us to Warsaw, a haven for Russian spies. Tania cannot forget her love for Karl as she is relentlessly pursued by the top spy, General Boris von Alexandroff (played by Gustav von Seyffertitz). Boris wants a romantic relationship with Tania, who consistently puts him off. She attends cocktail parties full of military men while being constantly watched by the suspicious aide-de-camp of the General (Richard Alexander). Tania tells Boris that she doesn’t like being a spy anymore, which means serving her country using lies and treachery. But he responds with “When one takes the oath to serve the Czar as a spy, the only release is death.”
The Austrians decide to give Karl a chance to redeem himself, so they send him to spy on the Russians. An earlier scene shows him playing the piano at Tania’s apartment, so we know he’s a capable musician. Although he seems rather weak to be sent on such an important mission, he goes to Warsaw undercover and gets a few key gigs right away — including playing piano for a party also attended by Tania. Karl plays and Tania sings a song, which rekindles the romance and sparks a new dilemma: will Tania help the Austrians now?
Garbo’s silent films give her lots of screen time, as they should, but the camera seems to find her especially captivating in this movie. Garbo goes from passionate joy, to boundless energy to complete despair. Director Fred Niblo only points the camera away from her to fill in essential parts of the spy story, notably in a long sequence when Karl is stripped of his medals in front of his regiment. I prefer the scene in Tania’s apartment that shows her seductively lighting candles while Karl contemplates her with a helpless stare.