Diary Of A Lost Girl was the second collaboration between the Austrian-German film director G.W. Pabst and the American silent actress Louise Brooks, following on from their previous film Pandora’s Box (1928). The remarkable chemistry that was so evident in that earlier film is just as striking here, Brooks illuminating the screen and bringing a deeper emotional resonance to an otherwise run-of-the-mill melodrama.
As in Pandora’s Box and many other German silent films of the period, particularly the crime thrillers of Fritz Lang, there is a social aspect to the film, Pabst’s subject matter stripping away the apparent glamour and respectability of the lives of the rich and influential and showing that all is not as wonderful as it appears on the surface. For Louise Brooks’ Thymian, the daughter of a pharmacist, her innocent childlike view of the world is brutally torn apart on the day of her First Communion when her favourite housekeeper is found dead and she discovers the nature of her father’s relationship with the new housekeeper. Overcome by shock, the young girl is in no state to defend herself from the advances made on her by the shop clerk, Meinert (Fritz Rasp), and as a result of her seduction, the unmarried young girl gives birth to a child.
The family discover the shameful secret of the baby’s father, but find their hands tied when trying to bring about a resolution to the problem. Meinert is in an unassailable position as he has taken advantage of Thymian’s father’s mismanagement of the pharmacy and owns the mortgage on the business premises. Thymian has no love for the man and refuses to marry him, so the family decide that the baby must be given away to a foster parent, while Thymian is sent to a reformatory for lost and delinquent girls. In her despair at the cruel regime being run at the institution, Thymian turns to her only friend Count Orloff for help. Unable to find suitable employment, Orloff (André Roanne) has however been disinherited by his uncle and thrown out to fend for himself. Helping her escape from the reformatory, the outcast and the lost girl try to start a new life for themselves in no other place than a high-class brothel.
Throughout Diary of A Lost Girl, Pabst depicts the underlying corruption of apparently respectable members of society. Thymian’s father, a pharmacist, would appear to be a responsible businessman, but his weakness for pretty young girls is to lead to his downfall. The apparently glamorous life of a brothel for one young girl Erika, is in reality the route to a reformatory. The motives of those who seemingly run such an institution for the betterment of society, and even those who send young girls there, is also is questioned, showing less concern for an rehabilitation of the girls held there than for maintaining their own respectability.
Betrayed on all sides by these pillars of society and excluded from their midst, the innocent Thymian is inevitably drawn to the only path in which she can find and express any kind of freedom – a descent into a life of immorality. Her unfortunate tendency to swoon when in the arms of men intent on having their way with her can make it seem like Thymian is an unwilling and unwitting victim, an innocent cast adrift on the tides of corruption, but there is more of a sense of abandonment in her actions, giving herself over to a way of living that is less hypocritical than those around her. Pabst would have had great difficulty expressing such an outlook and getting it past the censor – and many scenes were indeed cut from the film - so the ambiguity of these situations is absolutely necessary.
Fortunately for Pabst, he is assisted immeasurably in overcoming these obstacles through the phenomenal and sensual presence that is Louise Brooks herself, who adds a remarkable degree of complexity and range to the otherwise broad characterisations of good and evil in this melodramatic situation. Amidst all the stiffness and formality of the silent movie playing, Brooks is a pure, natural force. It’s like a time machine has taken her from the present day and dropped her into an old black and white silent movie, so utterly modern is her appearance and her unselfconsciousness in front of the camera. Her freshness and vitality conveys everything the director wishes to express about the purity of love and life liberated from the corrupting lies and hypocrisy of outward respectability, without which we are all lost.
Diary Of A Lost Girl is released in the UK by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema imprint and is #39 in the series. The film is presented on a single-layer barebones disc in PAL format and is region free.
Diary Of A Lost Girl is almost 80 years old, so perhaps unexpectedly some of the elements assembled for the restored DVD print, licensed from the wonderful people at the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, show some signs of aging. There is quite a bit of grain visible, the image is slightly soft and tones are slightly washed out. A transfer on a dual-layer disc may have improved the definition, but I suspect not by much. There are still a number of minor marks and a few noticeable tramline scratches, but nothing more than would be commensurate for the age of the film. Considering that, this looks pretty good, the image looking remarkably stable in a fine progressive transfer.
A silent film, the producers recommend that you listen to the film without accompaniment, but a soundtrack is included - a piano score by Javier Pérez de Aspeitia in Dolby Digital 2.0. There are no problems with the sound at all, and even fewer if you turn the sound down as recommended.
German intertitles are used in the film, some of them original, other new ones added, doubtlessly taken from the original screenplay or censor records. The new titles haven’t been reconstructed to match the original font. English subtitles translating them are provided and are optional. They can be difficult to make out when they are laid on top of the German text.
It’s unusual, if not unique, for a Masters of Cinema release to be completely barebones, but that is the case here, with no extra features on the disc at all. A 40-page booklet is included which contains a mixture of new and old writings on the Pabst/Brooks partnership and Diary Of A Lost Girl itself, the most clearly written and informative being an essay by R. Dixon Smith.
What might have been just another silent melodrama curiosity of interest only to film historians becomes something else entirely through the presence of one of the most charismatic performers of the silent or indeed any filmmaking era. The second film teaming of director G.W. Pabst and actress Louise Brooks in Diary Of A Lost Girl might not quite match the achievement of their earlier Pandora’s Box, but Brooks is no less luminous here, taking a fairly stock role and making it come alive in such a way that she can still stun a modern audience. As part of the Masters of Cinema series, Diary Of A Lost Girl is disappointingly barebones, but with a fine transfer, the qualities of the film speak for themselves.