Mata Hari is a 1931 American Pre-Code Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film loosely based on the life of Mata Hari, an exotic dancer and courtesan executed for espionage during World War I. The film stars Greta Garbo in the title role. It was Garbo’s most commercially successful vehicle. Only a censored version of the film is currently available.
In 1917, France is embroiled in World War I. Dubois (C. Henry Gordon), head of the French spy bureau, offers to spare the life of a captured agent (an uncredited Mischa Auer) if he will reveal who he is protecting. Dubois suspects it is Mata Hari, a celebrated exotic dancer, but the prisoner chooses execution by firing squad.
Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro) of the Imperial Russian Air Force lands in Paris after a dangerous flight over enemy territory, bringing important dispatches from Russia. He persuades his superior, General Serge Shubin (Lionel Barrymore), to take him to see Mata Hari perform that night. Rosanoff is instantly smitten by her (as are most of the men of Paris). By youthful exuberance and good looks, he persuades her to spend the night with him. However, the next morning, she makes it clear to him that it was a one-time dalliance.
Carlotta (Karen Morley) secretly instructs Mata Hari to report to Andriani (Lewis Stone), their spymaster. Andriani orders her to find out from General Shubin the contents of the dispatches Rosanoff brought.
Meanwhile, when Dubois discloses his suspicions about Mata Hari to Shubin, the general laughs them off as ridiculous. However, Shubin has himself passed secret information to his lover Mata Hari, whom he is expecting for a private dinner. Rosanoff arrives unexpectedly, in case Shubin has further instructions before the pilot returns to Russia with more important dispatches. Upon learning of Rosnoff’s mission, Mata Hari arranges for a confederate to steal the dispatches, photograph them and then return them undetected, while she keeps a puzzled, but delighted Rosanoff occupied.
This is the opportunity for which Dubois has been waiting. He informs Shubin of Mata Hari’s recent activities, inciting his jealousy. She comes to see the general, but is unable to persuade him she was only doing her job. In fact, she has fallen in love with the younger man. Furious, Shubin telephones Dubois and confirms that Mata Hari is a spy. She shoots him dead before he can carry through on his threat to implicate Rosanoff.
Mata Hari goes into hiding, but when Andriani informs her that Rosanoff crashed and was seriously injured on his way back to Russia, she defies him and resigns to go to her love. Rosanoff has been blinded, but may recover his sight. After a joyful reunion (in which she does not reveal her desperate predicament), she is arrested by Dubois.
At her trial, her lawyer, Major Caron (Alec B. Francis), points out that Dubois’ case is weak; all his testimony is second-hand. However, when Dubois threatens to have Rosanoff brought in to testify that he met her outside Shubin’s office just after the murder, Mata Hari gives up. She is sentenced to death. She writes to Rosanoff, telling him that she cannot see him for a while, as she has to go to a sanatorium for her health.
Shortly before her execution, Rosanoff is brought to her. The jailor and the attending nuns all maintain the pretense that they are in a sanatorium. Rosanoff tells the prisoner that he will likely see again and he looks forward to their future life together once she has recovered her health. Finally, Mata Hari is taken away to face the firing squad, with Rosanoff under the impression that she is going into surgery for a routine operation.