Ellen Murray checks out the Eureka! Entertainment edition of G. W. Pabst’s masterwork of German silent cinema, Diary of a Lost Girl, released as part of their Masters of Cinema Series.
The release of The Jazz Singer in 1922 was the beginning of the end for the silent film era. By the end of the decade virtually all mainstream releases were sound films, or ‘talkies’. Though the technology had yet to be perfected and some of the recorded dialogue sounded stilted, the novelty of hearing actors talk on screen drew in too many viewers for film producers to ignore. G.W Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), made in the twilight of its genres popularity, stands today as a monument to the best silent film had to offer.
The story begins with the young and innocent Thymian Henning (Brooks) on the day of her confirmation. The happy occasion is marred however by the departure of the family’s housekeeper, Elisabeth (Schmitz), who has become pregnant after having an affair with Thymian’s pharmacist father. In a desperate attempt to better understand the situation Thymian turns to her father’s assistant, Meinert (Rasp), who claims to have all the answers. In actuality, Meintert uses this opportunity to seduce the poor girl and she subsequently gives birth to an illegitimate child. After refusing to marry Meinert on the account that she does not love him, Thymian finds herself in a backwards reformatory for ‘fallen women’ which is ruled with an iron fist by a tyrannical woman (Gert) and her equally as bad assistant (Engelmann). Escaping the horrible institution, Thymian finds herself enveloped on a life of prostitution and debauchery. One twist of fate after another ultimately leads our protagonist down a road that will test both her character and emotional endurance.
On paper, the film reads like a Dicken-esque tale of the fallen woman and Christian redemption. In reality, Pabst handles his material in a surprisingly nuanced and sophisticated manner. Moments of great melodrama are still sprinkled throughout but there’s a distinct lack of the black and white morals that dominated other films of the era. Rather, the director takes time convey to the audience the fuzzy greyness that defines human existence. In this, Pabst is greatly aided by Louise Brooks’ magnetic performance. The lack of dialogue in silent films meant actors of the time were prone to using overt facial and bodily expressions to portray emotion. Brooks does not fall into this category, appreciating that subtly can still get across big emotions. In place of words, Brooks uses her eyes. Thymian is certainly a victim of circumstance but she is no weakling. There’s a quiet strength to Brooks’ character that makes us believe that she is capable of surviving anything that is thrown at her. No swooning for this lady!
Considering the time period in which it was made the film also puts forward a very progressive message regarding society’s treatment of so-called ‘fallen women’. All our sympathy lies entirely with Thymian and her fellow inmates at the reformatory. In contrast, the reformatory’s overseers are presented as sadistically cruel and wholly unlikeable. The hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, who happily turn away any girl unfortunate enough to find herself pregnant and unmarried but willingly turn a blind eye on the married men who put them in that position, is also highlighted. Female sexuality is nothing to be feared here; rather society’s attitude towards it is the problem. Today’s mainstream Hollywood could learn something from the film.
They say great art never dies and this film is a perfect example of that. As engaging now as it was when it was first released, Diary of a Lost Girl marked the end of the silent era in a blaze of filmic glory.
Diary of a Lost Girl is released in a Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition as part of their award-winning The Masters of Cinema Series on 24th November 2014.