G.W. Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl is a special treat. There is a dark and twisted realism that one rarely sees in films prior to the advent of sound., it stands apart for its refined mastery of editing, and it features a progressive undertone focusing on the plight of women in German society in the 1920′s. Pabst was on the cutting edge of filmmaking in 1929, and rightfully deserves a spot among the greatest directors.
- Director: Georg Wihelm Pabst
- Writer: Margarete Bohme, Rudolf Leonhardt
- Cast: Louise Brooks, Fritz Rasp, Andre Roanne, Josef Rovensky, Franziska Kinz, Sybille Schmitz, Andrews Engelmann
Thymian Henning (Louise Brooks) is the daughter of Robert Henning (Josef Rovensky), a successful pharmacist with a shady personal life. Thymian’s life quickly changes when she learns that a housekeeper, who her father had impregnated, leaves mysteriously and turns up dead from an apparent suicide. During the immediate aftermath, Thymian is presumably raped by her father’s assistant Meinert (Fritz Rasp), resulting in an illegitimate pregnancy. Refusing to marry Meinert, Thymian is sent to a reformatory from which she soon escapes, only to eventually end up at the same reformatory under different circumstances. But, prior to her return, Thymian’s journey will involve prostitution and her own sexual liberation.
Diary of a Lost Girl is yet another example of the amazing cinema coming out of Germany during the silent era, before the Nazi regime came into power. Although other films prior to 1929 may also claim sophisticated narrative structures, director Georg Wihelm Pabst is among the silents era’s greatest masters of intricate story lines, thanks in large part to his use of continuity editing and the now-common shot-reverse-shot. We may take these subtle editing techniques for granted today, but their use in the late 1920′s allowed for early complex storytelling. In a film that barely exceeds 100 minutes, Pabst explores a thematic spectrum that includes undesired pregnancies, implied rape, suicides, prostitution, social reformation and parental promiscuity. And yet, not only does the story maintain an impressive focus on Thymian, it never feels as though it adds too many things into the mix.
Because of Pabst’s ability to focus on Thymian, we grow to care about her struggle, providing us with a significant amount of access to her suffering and vulnerability. For instance, there’s an effective scene where Thymian runs into her father after becoming a prostitute. Without making their encounter a violent or overly-staged confrontation, Pabst provides the scene with an astonishing amount of tension using only deep stares, reverse shots and closeups. In another scene, when Thymian first realizes that her stay at the reformatory is real, she walks to the window and contemplates the outside world. Standing there, a guard walks up behind her and grabs her by neck, further indicating her confinement. As for the action on screen, that’s all we get, but the emotional tone here is powerful. The feeling of realism in Diary of a Lost Girl is striking. Louise Brooks lends the role of Thymian with a perceptible feeling of social realism (it’s worth noting that Brooks suffered sexual abuse as child herself). Fritz Rasp’s performance must also be praised, if not for having one of the most sinister smiles in film history, for his ability to contribute a degraded mood to the film.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
I remember watching Pandora’s Box in college and being blown away at how racy it was for its time. Diary of a Lost Girl is the same realm. Without words, nearly every scene becomes a complex and rare emotional experience. Much like John Cassavetes; work, Pabst did not encourage his actors to associate with one another, as this was thought to bring out a more raw and genuine performance in each actor. Because of this, it is interesting to read Mr. Ebert’s review and learn that Louise Brooks was often criticized for appearing on-screen as if she wasn’t acting at all. Instead, it felt to many as though she just stood there. Mr. Ebert’s following insight describes it best, “in the middle of a happy scene, the others might act out mirth, but her reaction would be more one of regarding it, recognizing it. Her job as an actress wasn’t to lead us in the proper reaction. It was to observe its reality. Instead of visibly reacting and telegraphing emotions, she acted as the instrument to transmit them to us.” It is strange how a film without any sweeping moments of conflict can feel so important. Much of this can be attributed to Louise Brooks and the technical skill of G.W. Pabst.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Diary of a Lost Girl? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Grave of the Fireflies
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Georg Wihelm Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl this week, he now has 306 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.