Diary of a Lost Girl (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
G.W. Pabst’s two most seminal films of the 1920s are so bold by any context including our own, eighty years removed, it can serve to distract the viewer from the story he’s telling. We’re not accustomed to films being so direct, much less black and white silent films, as to make us squirm a bit. His unerring, uncompromising eye rings out like a sort of searchlight above seamy reality, human misery, and indomitable spirit. The “lost girl” of the title is both literal and aggressively sardonic; Thymian is no girl, she is a woman swimming through endless hostility only derailed by normalized misogyny, much as the heroine of Pandora’s Box meets an end not from her frowned-upon independence and promiscuity but from a fetishistic male urge. At an extreme level, of course, but that’s melodrama. Pabst sits at the dawn of melodrama in its purest cinematic form; Diary of a Lost Girl could drown in all its lurid fixations and the energy it fixes on irresistible identification with Thymian, but it’s such a work of art, so modern and fierce in its evocation of dread — and hope, eventually, but only at a price. Pabst again renders a Gothic nightmare from the mundane horrors of some twisted Lifestyles page. The result isn’t quite as alarming as Pandora’s Box but it’s closer than anyone but Pabst could’ve come.
He has, of course, a coauthor in the form of Louise Brooks; gone are the sparkle and glam of their earlier collaboration, replaced by a sense of despair written sublimely into her eyes. The dramatic power in her work here is nearly without peer in silent film, and her unshaken presence enlivens the impression of Thymian as a proto-feminist who’s rendered with profound empathy by Brooks and Pabst in collaboration. She arrives to us from the pages of a scandalous 1905 book by Margarete Bohme, but we meet her as nothing more than a precocious if privileged young lady who’s haplessly confused by the fact that her giddily horny father’s dalliances with their maid have had tragic consequences. After this indirectly leads to a rape and an illegimate pregnancy, we skip forward and we’re off: Thymian’s life is a living hell, a nightmare on film, all of it spirit-crushing. She makes no claim to indefatigable toughness — she’s conquered at every turn by the patriarchy — but she never stops fighting, and her eyes betray her determination. Brooks, a firecracker of a personality in real life, is this character — lost and mortified with the direction of the world and its downward glare upon her.
Pabst’s pro-woman sensibilities are less unusual, if anything, for 1920s cinema than for the immediate decades afterward, but the proto-feminism inherent to this story is still potent. Through a stint at a sinister boarding school led by a matronly crazy (played with delicious perversion by Valeska Gert) and her Jaws-like assistant, through inheritance and escape and suicide and estrangement and prostitution and death and all emotional wreckages in between, she retains her pluck but her lot in life is consistently the result of her being blamed for the actions of others. Her only crimes, such as in her brilliant escape sequence with her friend Erika, or her selling her body to make ends meet, are in the name of self-preservation. When she’s in the muck, it’s because those (almost always men) with power over her placed her there.
That sense of bearing a cross, of being hurled up against the moralistic and vile dregs of a staid, intolerant society inevitably recalls The Passion of Joan of Arc; Pabst seizes on that kind of visual shorthand, but his line to the audience is more direct even if less emotional. Like Dreyer, he can render stunning and disturbing the mere glance of a face or the widening of a pair of eyes. The eating of soup, even. And he doesn’t flinch before eroticism, but nor does he glamorize anything about the world he pictures. We identify so intensely with Thymian because of Brooks, but it’s through Pabst’s daring, uncompromising lens that we feel as threatened as she does.
By this point in silent filmmaking, directors like Pabst were entering uncharted territory in terms of visual storytelling, a gradually honed gift that would sadly soon become derailed with the advent of sound. There are elements of Diary as sophisticated as anything in world cinema of the period — the astoundingly minimal development of the crucial characters at the outset, or the drab manner in which the reaction of Thymian’s father to her downward spiral is rendered in such shadow: Pabst might be the only director to visualize guilt, entirely nonverbally. His work here is something of a piece with the silent films of Hitchcock, Vidor and Murnau in the degree to which they use extremely subtle, “negative” acting to achieve their emotional range. The humor, optimism, empathy and terror of Diary of a Lost Girl is so often played out strictly in characters’ eyes. No words need to be said, for instance, in the scene late in the film wherein Thymian asserts her humanity over a former oppressor, her father’s cold-hearted recent widow Meta, and gives her a new lease on life — the shame in Franziska Kinz’s eyes is so absolute that verbal communication would derail the performance. I’m not the sort to claim that we lost everything when we gained sound, but sequences like this really make you wonder dangerous things.
That Diary of a Lost Girl, unlike the sensationalistic novel, stops short of a truly undiluted and fearless finale (never able to catch any kind of a break, the heroine offs herself in the source) serves only perhaps to remind us that the movies were a populist medium even when they were at their darkest. The film would make an intriguing double feature with Hitchcock’s Blackmail for the way in which that eager young director carefully bakes his pessimistic, cynical conclusion into what ostensibly appears an upbeat narrative. Both films show stunning prescience in their treatment of the problems of young women, whose perpetual victimization was and is an insult to the power they truly hold as individuals. Diary isn’t in great condition, but it bursts out of the frame and right past all the years of aging it’s endured and can be held up as less a relic of another time than a simple but terrifying message of the capacity of humans to hurt, and forgive, on the basis of nothing more than misogyny and prejudice. We want to think we’ve changed far more than we have.