This is the second film that Louise Brooks made with G. W. Pabst. Both are iconic figures in late silent cinema. Brooks is a luminous and distinctive star presence on screen. Pabst is a skilled and innovating filmmaker. Moreover, they worked together towards the end of one of the really creative periods in silent cinema: filmmakers in the Weimar Republic enjoyed the most advanced technical facilities in Europe and innovated in a series of distinctive film movements. This film also benefited from the skills of the industry’s craftspeople, especially the cinematographers Sepp Allgeier and Fritz Arno Wagner.
The film is adapted from a novel of the same name by Margarete Böhme. She was a popular writer in the early C20th. Diary of a Lost Girl was her most popular novel, published in 1905 and eventually selling over a million copies. So the original story was set in Wilhemine Germany. It was at first marketed as an actual story edited by Böhme. It had already been filmed in 1918, though this version seems lost.
The partnership of Pabst and Brooks is famous for their previous collaboration, Pandora’s Box (Nero-Film AG 1929). This was adapted from an even more notorious work by Franz Wedekind, two plays Erdgeist (Earth Spirit 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box 1904). These are classics of German literature, though they were also considred shocking and suffered censorship problems when first performed. Their quality can be seen from an earlier film version starring the major diva of the time, Asta Nielsen. There is also as an operatic masterpiece by Alban Berg, Lulu. Pandora / Lulu achieves tragic status whilst offering a scathing critique of bourgeois society. Diary of a Lost Girl does critique the mores of contemporary German society but is much more of a melodrama.
The plot of the film is full of conventional sequences, which are also found in other films dealing with the exploitation of young women. In keeping with the pre-occupations of the society of the time, these are predominately sexual with the economic taking a subordinate place.
Brooks plays Thymian, the central character. At the start of the film her household is disrupted when the housekeeper, Elisabeth (Sybille Schmitz) becomes pregnant by Thymian’s father, Robert Henning (Josef Rovensky). Henning runs a pharmacy: he is also a weak character, of import later in the film. So Elisabeth is forced to leave and soon commits suicide. Her father later marries the new housekeeper Meta (Franziska Kinz). During this Thymian displays her innocence and naivety by failing to really understand what has happened: she also then displays her sensitivity when she sees Elisabeth’s corpse carried away.
This sexual disruption to the household sets in motion a series of exploitative actions, which also fall outside the mores of bourgeois society. Thymian is seduced / raped by the Pharmacy assistant Meinert (Fritz Rasp). This leads to a series of ‘falls’ for Thymian – through reformatory and then to a brothel. Through all this Thymian records her life in her dairy: a present for her confirmation day, the day on which the scandal regarding Elisabeth occurs.
Brooks’ character is rather different from the ‘free spirit’ of Pandora’s Box. In that film her sexually aware innocence leads men to their doom, but finally also leads Lulu to her own. In Diary of a Lost Girl Thymian is the proverbial innocent. Even after a spell in a reformatory and when she has progressed to a brothel she seems unaware of the actuality of sex, especially sex in which men expropriate from a woman. Thus in the film it is unclear whether Thymian is merely seduced or she is actually raped. In two scenes involving men Thymina apparently swoons and is then carried by the man to a bed and to sex. Given the exploitative tone that Pabst’s film provides I think these actions really count as rape.
Brooks is very good at conveying this combination of innocent naivety, which is somehow combined with certain knowingness. Her definite charisma on screen partly follows from the way that she characterises the women she plays. In both of Pabst’s films there is a recurring characterisation by her: first she stares uncomprehendingly at another character, then she breaks into an engaging smile. These smiles mark steps in her progressions; parallel but different in the two films,
The film relies extensively on close-ups and these predominate over long shots. So the film emphasises the characters rather than the settings. Pabst and his team are masters of the developing art of film editing. His films tend to continuity rather discontinuities. And the cutting is regular so that we see characters and exchanges in a variety of shots.
The mise en scène adds to the representation of characters. In the body of the film there are three important settings: the family home and pharmacy: the reformatory and the brothel. The home is characterised by unease and dislocation. So we often see characters appearing or disappearing: caught in doorways and corridors. The reformatory is a sparse brutal environment. The most frequently seen room is a dining room cum workshop. There are only tables, chairs and the machines that the inmates work at.
There is an exception, which is the girl’s dormitory, which offers a space where the girls [after lights out] enjoy some autonomy. So one memorable scene in the dining room has the head’s wife [Valaska Gert) striking a gong as the girls perform physical movements. Later, in the dormitory after the head of the reformatory (Andrews Engelmann) and his wife have gone to bed the girls play, smoke, play cards and generally indulge. [There is a feel of a parallel with the later famous sequence in Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite 1933].
This alternative space for women is paralleled in some ways by the brothel. The film generally presents this as a free and easy environment where the women are untrammelled and content. The setting is there for men and their pleasure, but the key figure is the ‘madam’ of the house. And the women are happy to pleasure the men. The exception, Thymian, follows the example of the others following her seduction/rape. A shadow appears in an intense scene where Thymian encounters her father, who is visiting a nightclub where Thymian is the prize in a raffle. The father is shaken, but Thymian continues her life of prostitution.
However, the strength of patriarchy returns in the film. Thymian’s two continuing friends over the course of the story are Graf Osdoff (André Roanne), heir to a count but an ineffectual character: and Erika (Edith Meinhard) a friend in both the reformatory and the brothel. Graf is disposed of but his death leads to Thymian being taken under the wing of his uncle, who ‘rescues’ her from her situation and places her in a properly salubrious situation Here Thymian is able to settle accounts with the people who have misstated and exploited her.
The ending in the film is different from that of the book. In the book
“she dies from never having experienced a love of her own volition.”
It seems that the book presents the story in the first-person of Thymian, hence the ‘Diary’ in the title. The film eschews this and treats the diary as a recurring plot device rather than a source of the narrative. Heide Schlüpmann also adds that:
“She [Margarethe Böhme] defends the rights and dignity of unwed mothers, as well as the “morality” of prostitutes, against the dominant bigotry, including the hypocrisy of the middle-class charity groups run by women.”
Much of this is lost in the film though Pabst and his colleagues do frame unsympathetically both the moral relatives of Henning who insist Thymian goes into a reformatory and a, later in the film, the middle-class charitable group who support the reformatory. This is where the film crosses over with Pandora’s Box, as in that film Lulu’s life and death are at the behest of men. However, Lulu is still a much more active character than Thymian. This is partly down to the melodramatic morals of Diary of a Lost Girl. But also that Wendekind’s play is, despite its critical stance, still predominantly from the male point of view, which is also the case with Pabst’s film. Schlupmann has a quotation from Brooks,
“He [Pabst} was conducting an investigation into his relations with women …”.
The skill of the filming and the presence of Louise Brooks have ensured that this film regularly resurfaces at Festivals. The original film was 3.132 metres in length. However, after censorship cuts one version was reduced to 2008 metres: and there was a recut version in 1930. Overall the film avoided the censorious response that met Pandora’s Box. But presumably the scenes in a brothel caused concern for some. The restored version by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiffung is 3,30 metres.
Heide Schlüpmann’s article The Brothel as an Arcadian Space? Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) appears in The Films of G. W. Pabst An Extraordinary Cinema edited by Eric Rentschler, Rutgers University Press, 1990.