A little more love for the lost
A UK region 0 DVD review of DIARY OF A LOST GIRL by Slarek
 

As a long-standing film devotee, I'm probably unusual in that I never fixated on any particular actor or actress, even at a young age. Well, that's not completely true. There was one who even in picture book stills would make me just a little dizzy and who on screen I regarded as little short of a goddess in human form. The woman in question was Louise Brooks and this obsession was based on her appearance in just one film, Georg Wilhelm Pabst's hauntingly brilliant 1929 Pandora's Box. I was not alone in this – a close friend of years past frequently used Brooks as a yardstick by which to measure all human beauty and always referred to the bob cut that became so popular in the 60s through the likes of Vidal Sassoon as "the Louise Brooks hairstyle." Reading the booklet that accompanies the UK release of Diary of a Lost Girl, Brooks' second collaboration with Pabst, it's clear that our fascination with this particular actress was not an isolated one.

There are a sizeable number in any potential movie audience that will instantly tune out when they realise a film is of a certain age, and more if they know it's a product of silent cinema. Those with limited exposure to films of this period have sometimes narrow expectations for them, or speeded-up slapstick or overwrought dramas with exaggerated gestures and sets the size of small towns. What they often fail to appreciate is the speed of development that took place in this period, where enthusiastic and talented artists were pushing this new medium forward on a seemingly week-by-week basis in both technique and storytelling sophistication. Go back to 1927 and just have a look an the astonishing technical wizardry of Abel Gance's Napoleon – this film wasn't just ahead of its time, it was ahead of OUR time.

Some of the most thrilling of all late silent cinema works emerged from Europe and especially Germany, the sometimes fantasy-based Expressionist works of the early 20s eventually giving way to the social realist films of the decade's close. With the rise of fascism in the run-up to WW2, many German filmmakers moved to Hollywood, where their contributions were to prove key to the look and feel of early sound cinema there.

It was a different story for Pandora's Box, a rare example of a German film with an imported American star. Later the same year, Pabst and Brooks made their second film together, Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen), a film I never got round to tracking down, for which there are no excuses beyond the usual ones of too many films and putting in the sort of work hours frowned on by the Working Time Directive. Then the film is released on UK DVD by Masters of Cinema and a copy lands on my doormat and what do I do? I put it on the pile and swear I will get onto it and end up missing the release date by several months. So why cover it so long after the event? It's simple, really – because Diary of a Lost Girl a beautifully made and consistently compelling drama that I suspect many others have also yet to discover.

There is so much in this film to recommend that it's hard to know where to begin or how much to reveal. Let's kick off with this – right from the start, the film treats you like a world-aware grown-up. Made three years before America's Production Code put its repressive foot down on any home grown or imported film dealing with adult themes, the directness in Diary of a Lost Girl seems retrospectively startling.

Consider the opening scene. A young housekeeper named Elisabeth (Sybille Schmitz) is begging at the feet of her middle-aged employer, pharmacist Karl Henning (Josef Rovensky), whose watching wife contemptuously observes, "So you've had your way with this housekeeper, too." Enter their beautiful young daughter Thymian (the lovely Louise), who doesn't understand why Elisabeth is leaving and no-one is about to tell her, except for creepy shop worker Meinert (Fritz Rasp), who keeps a collection of nude photos in his desk and clearly has lecherous designs on Thymian. He instructs her to meet him in the shop that evening via a note placed in the diary she has just received as a Confirmation gift, when he promises to explain all. Before this meeting can take place, however, Thymian is sent into a state of shock by the news that Elisabeth has taken her own life, which fails to stop Karl from making his first moves of her newly arrived and willing replacement Meta (Franziska Kinz). Later that evening the still distraught Thymian decides to keep her appointment with Meinert, whose deceptive seduction prompts her to faint. Meinert responds by carrying her upstairs to bed and raping her.

OK, we're not talking the sort of explicit sexual assault you might find in modern European cinema, but the audience is left in no doubt as to what takes place after the fadeout. It's the beginning of a downward slide for Thymian, who nine months later gives birth to the child of this unfortunate union but refuses to name the father. The family find out anyway by prising open her diary, but Karl's resulting anger cuts no ice with the cocksure Meinert. The family decide that Thymian should be kept away from this innocent child, which they deposit with a local midwife before shipping Thymian off to a correctional institution for wayward young girls, a sort of 1920s German equivalent of Ireland's Magdalene Laundries, one run by a skeletal automaton and his sadistic lesbian wife. Can you guess who the latter takes a shine to?

Strong stuff this may sound for 1929, but we're just getting started here – the death of her child and a drift into prostitution still await the unfortunate Thymian, and I won't even go into what's happening with her father and the unpleasant Meinert. A ray of hope arrives in the shape of Count Nikolaus Orsdorff (André Roanne), although his failure to succeed in anything he has tried has led to him being shunned by his wealthy father and left to make his own way in the world, something he does with cheer but little financial acumen. Partly as a result, even his story takes a later turn for the tragic.

Downbeat it may be but depressing it isn't, and it's a sign of Pabst's extraordinary skill as a director that even in Thymian's darkest moments she retains an innocence and purity of heart that ensures instant and unwavering audience identification with her plight. There's no cinematic showing off on his part – even the more inventive shots, as when characters are introduced from behind a raised newspaper or a bunch of flowers, are designed specifically to economically advance the narrative. It's a beautifully directed film, telling its story through sometimes perfectly judged and consistently purposeful camerawork and editing, and providing a most persuasive demonstration of the emotional and narrative power of cinema as a purely visual medium.

Central to this, of course, is Brooks herself, as electrifying a screen presence here as she was in Pandora's Box. Lest you be misled by my earlier admission, I'm not talking just about iconic beauty here, but a performance whose subtlety and depth flies in the face of commonly held belief of what constitutes the silent movie norm. The thing is, she's not alone. Theatrical villains and comedy relief aside (as Meinert, Fritz Rasp oozes sleaze from every pore, while the beard-twiddling customer who responds to Thymian's ad for 'dancing lessons' could be straight out of Mack Sennett), the performances are as controlled and naturalistic as any you'll find in later sound cinema and frankly could show some of the more attention-grabbing actors of today a thing or two. This is most keenly felt a dance hall scene in which Thymian comes achingly close to a reunion with her father and one of her companions, after which the rotund Dr. Vitalis (Kurt Gerron), cries a single, heartfelt tear for her fate and tells her "You are now a lost girl, just as we all are lost." It's an emotionally powerful moment, one among many, and achieved without hitting the audience over the head for the reaction, a skill modern western cinema appears to have largely lost or wilfully abandoned. This is real film acting, demonstrating a keen understanding on the part of the director and performers of the communicative power of the mid-shot and the close-up and how it allows you to tell your story with a whisper rather than a shout.

There's so much more to say about Diary of a Lost Girl, about the performances and the handling and the modest brilliance of individual scenes, but this is the point to stop reading about it and see it. If the very idea of sitting through a German silent film from 1929 is too much for you then it's your loss. The rest of us can only offer thanks that there are dedicated souls out there restoring and releasing such works on DVD, reminding us that the filmmaking art, for all its technical development in the hundred plus years of its existence, was actually mastered in its first thirty.

And after all these years, do I still think Louise Brooks was the epitome of western cinematic beauty? Oh you'd better believe it.

sound and vision

Anyone familiar with restorations of films of this vintage will be know the problems that those attempting the task face, with a new digital masters having to be constructed from a limited number of prints in often poor shape, usually with scratches, physical damage, varying exposures and missing frames. All are in evidence here, but some sterling work has been done to minimise their intrusive effect. Film grain is very evident and appears almost to have been enhanced by the digital restoration process, but in other respects the film looks impressive for its age, with the contrast and black levels about right and the level of detail often surpassing expectations.

The piano score for this release is less grandiose than a full orchestral accompaniment would have been, complimenting Pabst's low-key approach. The accompanying booklet suggests watching the film without the score for maximum effect – this certainly alters the experience and does, as suggested, focus your attention on Pabst's visual technique, although in my house this left the film open to a soundtrack of passing cars and the shouts of passers-by.

extra features

None on the disc, but the usual Masters of Cinema Booklet is packed with goodies, namely enjoyable and informative essays on the film and Louise Brooks by R. Dixon Smith and Louella Interim, memories of meeting with Brooks by Lotte H. Eisner, excerpts from Brooks' acclaimed movie memoirs Lulu in Hollywood and one of many letters she wrote to theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, and a poetry-structured recollection of the actress by Craig Keller, all illustrated with film and archive stills. I particularly liked the instructions at the back on how to properly format the picture for widescreen TVs, with the incorrect stretching or reframing wonderfully condemned simply as "unjust."

summary

One of that increasingly small mountain of films I just can't be completely objective about, Diary of a Lost Girl is one I've taken far too long to catch up with, the up side being that I got to experience that always exciting first viewing so recently. If you are a silent cinema devotee then there's a good chance you'll already have Eureka's DVD, but if you've always wondered just what it was about Louise Brooks that so fascinates many movie fans or you just want to see how well a story can be told without cranking up the volume in every department, then it's a definite pre-Christmas purchase.

Diary of a Lost Girl
Tagebuch einer Verlorenen

Germany 1929
107 mins
director
G.W. Pabst
starring
Louise Brooks
André Roanne
Josef Rovensky
Fritz Rasp
Franziska Kinz
Arnold Korff
Andrews Engelmann
Valeska Gert

DVD details
region 0
video
1.33:1 OAR
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
German inter-titles
subtitles
English
extras
Booklet
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
21 May 2007
review posted
17 October 2007