In the midst of World War I, Chief Dubois (C. Henry Gordon) is hard at work seeing that traitors and spies are put to their deaths. Lately, he’s been seeing a lot of men put in front of a firing squad for getting involved with Mata Hari (Greta Garbo), a spy who has been seducing important military officials to steal sensitive information from them. Dubois wants to see to it that she is stopped. Meanwhile, Russian Imperial Air Force Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro) has come to Paris to pick up some confidential documents he needs to deliver. After he arrives, he is invited by General Shubin (Lionel Barrymore) to go see the infamous Mata Hari dance that night.
While Mata Hari dances, she wins over everybody in the room, but especially Alexis. As soon as her performance is over, he is obsessed with meeting her. Unbeknownst to him, Shubin has been carrying on an affair with Mata. He knows that being caught with her would certainly mean his death, but he just can’t resist her charms. After the show, Alexis waits for her outside the theater and does get to meet Mata. Mata has had plenty of men in her life, but for the first time, she’s starting to feel something real for Alexis. But when she finds out Alexis is the one with some documents she needs to steal, she has no other choice but to seduce him, too. Mata’s feelings for Alexis pose a problem for her at work since her boss Andriani (Lewis Stone) very strongly believes that spies should never fall in love. In fact, he feels so strongly about it that he even had one of Mata’s fellow spies killed after she fell in love. Mata is ordered to carry on her relationship with Alexis but not get too attached to him.
Meanwhile, Dubois is still hot on Mata Hari’s trail and knows about Shubin’s relationship with her. In an attempt to get Shubin to turn Mata in, he tells Shubin that she and Alexis have been having an affair, hoping that he would be so mad that he’d gladly give up all the information they need. His plan works and Shubin confronts Mata, threatening to have her arrested. Mata pulls out a gun and shoots him. Andriani plans to send her to Amsterdam to avoid arrest, but before she leaves, she finds out that Alexis had been injured in a plane crash. Andriani warns her not to go see him, but Mata isn’t willing to stay away and resigns from the spy ring. But the only way to leave Andriani’s spy ring is by death. Mata goes to the hospital to see Alexis and although she avoids Andriani’s hit man, she’s nabbed by the police, instead. She pleads guilty and is set to be executed, but the last thing she wants is for Alexis to know what she has done.
I adore Greta Garbo, but Mata Hari isn’t one of my favorite movies of hers. She’s good in it, but she’s been in movies with far better plots and Lionel Barrymore and Ramon Novarro have both given better performances in better movies. The costumes are definitely interesting to look at. They’re not the sort of things you look at and say, “Wow, I wish I had that in my closet!” but they’re fascinating because they are so completely over the top. The way Adrian’s got her dressed, Mata Hari was the least inconspicuous spy of all time. I’d say the best thing about Mata Hari is the cinematography, I liked what they did with shadows in several scenes.