Reviews

Reviews

Diary of a Lost Girl

Diary of a Lost Girl

Tagebuch Einer Verlorenen

G.W. Pabst

Germany, 1929

Credits

Review by Ian Johnston

Posted on 17 November 2008

Source Eureka! / Masters of Cinema DVD

What accounts for the mesmerising effect Louise Brooks has on the viewers of the few films she appeared in, decade after decade? It’s an effect that can still be felt today in even such a minor film as Prix de beauté. Perhaps it has something to do with how little the movies ever mattered to Brooks; famously, she turned down William Wellman’s offer of the female lead of The Public Enemy (the role that made Jean Harlow) in favour of meeting up with her lover of the day. There’s no desperation to nail the role on Brooks’ part, no actor’s tricks, no over-emoting (the great failing of bad silent actors and bad silent directing) to grab our attention. Brooks soars above the other actors and in some cases above the film itself.

Pandora’s Box was and is the perfect vehicle for Louise Brooks, the ideal meeting of a great film actor and a great director. (Pabst’s later career showed a marked falling-off from that greatness—by all accounts, there were even some ignominious films made under the Nazis.) In Pandora’s Box Pabst captures Brooks’ mixture of instinctive sensuality and nonchalant innocence. She’s an intangible presence, beyond questions of good or evil or moral judgment, beyond the grasp and understanding of the men she drifts between. In its own way Pandora’s Box is a radical film whose bite still holds true today. It not only displays a distaste for and rejection of the self-satisfied complacency of German middle-class society but also thoroughly undermines the conventions of film drama of the day, from the opening in medias res of Lulu already ensconced as mistress of an older man (rather than the standard elaboration of the path a mistress would have taken to reach this point) through to the film’s mysterious and savage finale.

Diary of a Lost Girl was shot only a few months after the premiere of Pandora’s Box and shares many of the earlier film’s thematic and stylistic features. Again, Pabst gives us a critique of bourgeois society, although now it’s made even more explicit. The Brooks character Thymian, while very different from Pandora’s Lulu – for one thing, her character in the early scenes is one of virginal innocence corrupted – still becomes in Pabst’s hands a force of sexual allure that blazes through the film, casting an array of weak males into the shadows. And in Diary Pabst further develops his rich realist style, one that allows for the expressionism of extremes of character and actions but is grounded in the physical details of the world he is observing, the rooms and staircases, the doorways and windows, the exteriors of street or beach, the interiors of bourgeois home, chemist shop, reformatory, or brothel.

If Diary seems a lesser, more conventional film than Pandora’s Box, part of the reason for this can be put to its original source. (Part of the reason is also censorship—Pabst apparently wanted to end the film with Thymian as the madam of the brothel she rather innocently chances into working in, rather than the return to society that the film now ends with.) Pandora’s Box was the adaptation of two plays by Frank Wedekind, an important and controversial figure in the development of modern German drama. On the other hand, Maragarete Böhme, the author of the original 1905 Diary of a Lost Girl, was a now-forgotten author of popular fiction, churning out as many as four novels a year. There is a standardised quality to Diary’s narrative, following as it does the usual outlines of the falling-into-prostitution tale, although Pabst does make the second half of his film entirely original—he gives up on the consumptive death in Böhme’s original1, quite a standard in nineteenth-century melodramatic fiction, most notably Dumas’ La Dame aux camélias.

Diary of a Lost Girl opens in the comfortable, middle-class Henning household on the communion day of daughter Thymian, thus laying stress on Thymian’s virginal innocence. (To be honest, Brooks doesn’t quite convince as the young girl dressed in white in these early scenes.) Thymian has been brought up by her father, who runs his chemist shop downstairs with his assistant Meinert. This opening sequence is marked by a series of looks that work to reveal the secret life of this family, secrets that Pabst literally veils with net curtains, double doors, and blocking that, for example, only slowly reveals the identity of the father as the lover of the young, pregnant housekeeper. So, Thymian’s aunt looks up to observe with suspicion the unfolding drama that is a revelation of the sexual secrets within this bourgeois family (not a revelation to the aunt, though—“So you’ve had your way with this housekeeper too”). The pregnant housekeeper2 stares imploringly at Thymian’s father, who weakly returns her gaze, shrugging her shoulders and refusing responsibility. Thymian herself looks on uncomprehendingly, and downstairs the repellently sleazy Meinert will take in the situation, turning his leering gaze first from the housekeeper and then to Thymian, the object of his lust. And in case we miss that point, Pabst shows Meinert quickly turning to his stack of pornographic postcards when Thymian’s father leads her back upstairs.

The wealth of detail in the film’s opening minutes – details of personality, emotional state, dress, locale – is indicative of the film as a whole. Pabst is aiming for a novelistic depth that can offer a real insight into the characters and the society they live in. Even one interesting recurring device – holding a medium-shot on a new character who will stare directly at the audience – can be read as an equivalent to the way a realist novel will offer a paragraph of introductory description.

Thymian’s discovery of her father’s sexual involvement with the housekeeper (who has been both an older sister and a mother figure for her) is intensified by the arrival of the new housekeeper Meta. There’s no ambiguity about the sexual nature of her father’s relationship with Meta, and Meta becomes the evil stepmother figure who drives Thymian from her home. It’s a downward path for Thymian: seduced by Meinert, giving birth to an illegitimate child, sent to a reform school, and ending up as a high-class prostitute. But that social fall is parallelled by a rise in moral consciousness, a rejection of the hypocrisies of “normal” society.

By this end-point Thymian has become a character equal to Pandora’s Lulu, an agent of her own destiny with a conviction of her own self-worth. Yet prior to this Thymian is anything but this character of inner strength. Rather, she is a vulnerable innocent buffeted by the forces around her. At the two key moments of her sexual history – Meinert’s seduction of her, and her introduction into life as a prostitute – she literally swoons away, her body limp in the arms of the male who carries her to her bed. In contrast to Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl offers a greater transformation of the Brooks character, with Thymian by the end gaining control of her life, and in a position to direct events.

When after the birth of her child (who is placed in foster-care and then later dies) Thymian is sent to a reform school for “fallen” girls, the style of the film changes. It becomes extravagant and expressionistic, lurid even, in its portrayal of a reformatory run by a sexually perverse husband-and-wife team. The husband is a cruel sadist, tall, with a smooth bald dome of a head. There’s something insect-like the way Pabst often has him rising up from below into the frame. He’s even given a Nosferatu moment (surely a conscious allusion) as he stands against the window, body upright, arm stretched up, and fingers nervously tapping. His most extreme scene comes when he discovers Thymian’s friend Erika with a stick of forbidden lipstick. After viciously pulling Erika’s head back and roughly rubbing the lipstick off with a cloth, he then tries the lipstick out on his own fat lower lip before using it as a pen to record Erika’s punishment—and drawing a heart underneath!

The sexual sadism that underlies the male director’s draconian rule is shared by his wife, who is explicitly (and entirely negatively) portrayed by the film as a lesbian with an even greater sexual interest in her charges than her husband shows. The scene where she sadistically beats out a rhythm for the girls to eat by and simultaneously beadily eyes up individual girls is pushed even further in a later scene of forced gymnastic exercises. Here, she again beats out a rhythm, this time to set the pace of exercises, which she increasingly speeds up until the scene literally climaxes with a close-up of the orgasmic look on the woman’s face.

This section of the film set in the reformatory ends with a sequence where the girls turn the tables on the director’s wife, a series of events that are set off when she sneaks into the girls’ dormitory and grabs onto Erika’s legs as they hang down from a top bunk. But even when she’s held prisoner by the girls, there still seems to be a sexual undercurrent to the distorted face she pulls. At any rate, the girls’ revenge is complete, ending in a carnivalesque riot where the rhythm that the director’s wife earlier sadistically beat out is turned ironically against her in the pummelling fists that fall upon her and her husband.

The family home and the reformatory that the family consigns Thymian to are both sites of moral hypocrisy representative of bourgeois society as a whole. Thymian is condemned and punished for her sexual misdemeanours by authority figures who hide their own worse behaviour under a veneer of moral rectitude. (Even Meinert later in the film will adopt a high moral tone in condemning Thymian as a “filthy slut.”) When Thymian ends up in a high class brothel, it is a liberation of sorts. She has freed herself from the judgment of others – such judgment has no force now for her – and she has rejected the pretences of society. If she has become a “lost girl,” this is symbolic of the broken state of German society as a whole—as the brothel customer Dr Vitalis says, “Yes, Thymian, now you are a lost girl, just as we’re all lost.”

Thymian wins through to a position of strength, self-worth, and confidence in herself in a journey that is a relay from one weak man to another. After being abandoned by both her seducer-rapist Meinert and her own father, the latter too much in thrall to his own sexual desire to stand up to Meta in her harsh treatment of his daughter, Thymian is rescued from the reformatory by her friend Count Osdorff. Osdorff’s inability to conform to his rich uncle’s expectations – played out as a comic scene of trying and abjectly failing to milk a cow on the family estate – allies him with the other “lost ones”, those who both reject and are rejected by conventional society. But he’s also a weak and ineffectual figure who drifts from one situation to another, lacking any drive or direction. He slips out of the film and out of Thymian’s story with his suicide—and all we see of that are his papers floating down past an open window. Thymian’s final saviour is Osdorff’s uncle (another count) who so to speak returns Thymian to bourgeois society. But he’s also a rather asexualised figure who is there to offer support for the strength of will that Thymian has now found in herself.

Even if the ending is a little conventional, there’s still a force to the social critique that operates here. With Uncle Osdorff in tow, Thymian returns to the reformatory, this time as a member of the Society for the Rescue of Endangered Female Youth, a group of upper-class do-gooders. The way they line up in self-satisfied, superior judgment on the girls in the reform school mirrors the line of hypocritical relatives that sat in judgment on Thymian after the birth of her child.

Thymian initially seems oppressed by the emotions aroused by the return to the reform school. The bald-headed director is sickeningly sycophantic towards the visiting wealthy patrons, and there’s a grotesqueness to the way his shiny bald head rises up into the shot representing Thymian’s point-of-view. The director’s own point-of-view shot in answer – the camera slowly crawls up Thymian’s body – is a deliberately demeaning act of aggression against Thymian, who suffers with increasing distress the hypocrisy of the whole proceedings. The turning point is the abusive treatment of Erika, who is brought in like a recaptured convict. This brings Thymian to explode in bitter recriminations and, through her own force of will, to stare down these warders and to lead Erika away from it all. This is also Thymian/Louise Brooks’ exit from the film. It’s then left to Uncle Osdorff to draw the moral of the story: “A little more love and no-one would be lost in this world.” Yes, the message is heart-felt, but it’s also as if Pabst is unable to carry through the harshness of the world-view that he expounds in the bulk of the film. What seems at first as a bitter rejection of society ends with returning us to that society in the form of its “good” representative (thoughtful, sensitive, sympathetic towards others, but still, don’t forget, a rich upper-class male). In the process, in Thymian’s quick exit from the film before this final summing-up, Thymian/Louise Brooks ends up literally lost to us.


  1. There’s a good analysis of Böhme’s original in Anna Richards’ “The Wasting Heroine In German Fiction By Women 1770-1914” (O.U.P., 2004).
  2. The housekeeper is a brief role for Sybille Schmitz, who later appeared in Dreyer’s Vampyr and whose life marked by a descent into drug addiction was the source for Fassbinder’s Veronica Voss.

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