Blu-ray Review: ‘Diary of a Lost Girl’

A new restoration of G.W. Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece Diary of a Lost Girl, demonstrates the luminosity of his iconic star, Louise Brooks, in what was their final of two legendary collaborations, the other being Pandora’s Box in the same year. Having left Paramount studios to work for the celebrated German director in 1928, Brooks had been back in the US for six months when Pabst called upon her to again take the lead in his latest production. Like Lulu in Pandora’s Box, her character, Thymian Henning in Diary of a Lost Girl was one of questionable morality, occupying, throughout the film, positions in both ‘respectable’ and ‘sleazy’ society.

Thymian, on the day of her confirmation, is seduced by her father’s assistant pharmacist, Meinert (the suitably unnerving, Fritz Rasp), and, upon the birth of her daughter, is told she must marry him. Refusing the marriage, Thymian is swiftly removed from the household, separated from her newly born child, and placed in a reformatory run by an uncompromising and perverse headmistress (Valeska Gert) and her bald, looming husband (Andrews Engelmann). Escaping from her captor’s oppressive regime leads Thymian eventually to a brothel, where her fellow reformatory friend, Erika (Edith Meinhard) is a resident. An acerbic expedition through Weimar culture, what ensues is Thymian’s movement from supposed social outcast to the height of respectability, and a critique of bourgeois morals.

What’s fascinating about Diary of a Lost Girl is its central character’s seemingly unflappable nature in the face of a misogynistic society, right from the start. Thymian, having been taken advantage of, is resolute in her non-compliance of her family’s expectations for her marriage, thus being given no choice but face exclusion from ‘polite’ company. Just as her father’s mistress is dismissed once pregnant, so too is Thymian, exposing the class blindness of patriarchal oppression at the heart of every institution with which she comes into contact. Though again subject to non-consensual sex upon her first night at the brothel, Thymian’s recovery, embracing an alternative enterprise for income – dance lessons – than that of her cohorts, is joyful – the ‘house of sin’ within which she endures is presented as absent of it. Though Thymian being subject to the inequality of bourgeois life is far from over at this point, it’s her sense of agency that is compelling to watch, marking a turning point in her attitude to the structures that conspire to bind her. Rather than react to her misfortune, Thymian begins to take control of her fate.

Brooks is glorious as Thymian, her previous experience as a dancer obvious in her graceful gestures – a highlight being her first night at the brothel in which she is transformed, or rather assimilated by the Madame and her girls, into an object presentable to their male visitors. Performance, and the framing of it, is the very centre of Pabst’s approach here, where close-up is used with mesmerising effect. Engelman, tall and imposing as standard, is made curiously grotesque when shown applying a stolen lipstick to his own visage, and later, in a ballet of movement and glances, Thymian and her father’s physical separation is constructed as an escalating series of expressive facial exchanges, demonstrating Pabst’s virtuosity as a director of silent film, at a time when talkies were quickly outstripping them in production terms. Despite later slipping out of the movie business and eventually having success as a writer, Brooks was never more recognisable than in her work with Pabst, and it shouldn’t be understated just how effective the combination of his precise direction, and her resplendent performance really is.

Harriet Warman | @HarrietWarman