HCF REWIND NO. 253: DIARY OF A LOST GIRL AKA TAGEBUCH EINTER VERLORENEN [Germany 1929]
ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: 24th November, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 107 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Thymian Henning, the innocent, naive daughter of pharmacist Robert Henning, is puzzled when their housekeeper Elisabeth leaves suddenly on the day of Thymian’s confirmation. It turns out that her father got Elisabeth pregnant. Elisabeth’s body is brought to the pharmacy later that day, an apparent suicide by drowning, upsetting Thymian. Her father’s assistant Meinert promises to explain it all to her late that night,but instead he seduces her; she gives birth to an illegitimate child. Her family decides that the best solution is for her to marry Meinert, but Thymian refuses because she does not love him. They give the baby to a midwife and send her to a strict reformatory for wayward girls….
Perhaps true to form, I’ve never seen Pandora’s Box, one of the great late silent movies featuring the luminous Louise Brooks as a woman who is both predator and prey to all the males around her, but many years ago I did have the pleasure of seeing Diary Of A Lost Girl on TV [I’m old enough to remember the days when Channel 4 was a gift to those interested in old movies and often showed films from the silent era, something which they hardly ever do now], which reunited Brooks with the director of Pandora’s Box G.W.Pabst, and a film which has been overshadowed by its predecessor but which many claim to be superior. I was most happy to make its acquaintance again courtesy of Eureka Entertainment. It’s a highly involving tale of love, loss, redemption, sacrifice and hope which is full of the florid melodrama one associates with movies of the film, and its basic premise of a woman who, through no fault of her own, is constantly used and abused until you think her life can’t get worse, is a familiar one, but Pabst’s film also managed to be, and I say managed but much of it is still pertinent in many countries and societies today, an outspoken attack on Germany of the time, notably its hypocritical high society, especially its rich men who shun poorer women for supposed deviancy yet still use them without suffering the consequences, and its reformatory system. It’s very sad and even grim in parts – your heart will go out to this poor girl – but every now and again lightened up by rather odd humorous touches which some may see as out of place but for me added to the film’s offbeat appeal.
It was based on a novel by Margeret Bohme which caused a scandal in 1905. It told of the tale of the baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven who committed suicide in 1927. It was first filmed in 1919, though that version is now lost. Pabst, who clearly intended his version to compliment Pandora’s Box, and screenwriter Rudolf Leonhardt came up with two possible endings for the censors to decide upon, and ended up having to use the ending they didn’t really want with its heroine becoming the madam of the brothel in which she used to work, a more subversive and believable ending than the one that we have, which is overly conformist in nature compared with the way the rest of the film has been attacking ‘respectable’ ,’normal’ middle class German society. The film did well but was edited down in many places, the French version being so cut up, removing the entire brothel sequence, that the movie’s screenwriter Rudolf Leonhardt thought the film had broken down. I distinctly remember the Channel 4 version missing much footage towards the end and replacing some of it with stills. Eureka Entertainment present the full version, which like the majority of the great German silent films has been painstakingly restored in that country.
Poor pharmacist’s daughter Thymian sure doesn’t have a very good introduction to men. Her father routinely seduces the maids, who then have to leave, the last one drowning through suicide because she had got pregnant. Her father’s assistant, played by Frizt Rasp who had so much of his footage in Metropolis restored when they found that uncut print in 2008, seduces Thymian, who faints when he kisses her. Silly maybe, but he then carries her to a bed and seems to begin to make love to her while she’s still out cold! Like many films from this era, Diary Of A Lost Girl, while not being explicit, is adult and sexually frank in a way films, especially those from Hollywood, almost ceased to be soon afterwards. Thymian is soon pregnant herself, but is shunned by her father, has her baby taken away, and is put in a reform school, where we get a really bizarre yet sinister section of the film. The school is ran by a sadistic couple, the woman a butch lesbian who gets sexually excited when she bangs her cane at the dinner table in time with the mouthfuls of soup the girls are eating and forces the girls to do nightly exercises, and the man, unusually but effectively introduced coming up from beneath the screen, a leering grinner who wipes lipstick off girls and puts it on his own lips, and who eventually rapes Thymian.
A brothel seems almost like a refuge for Thymian after all that’s come before, and, ran by a kindly old lady, it does seem to be portrayed in a very positive light as the film’s only place of true friendship, but Thymian’s eyes show her despair, her resignation, as she is taken to bed and awakes the next morning to find she’s now a prostitute. There are a quite few twists and turns in the story afterwards, not all of which are believable, and then theres’s that slightly ‘cop out’ conclusion which jars with what’s come before, but it manages to move quite fast while dwelling on certain moments like a dance scene in the brothel where, despite the film being silent, Pabst, unlike many directors of the time, seems to be trying to set a certain mood and let the audience really feel like they are a part of the scene. The camera keeps up with Thymian without cutting as she goes up a lot of stairs, something which seems like nothing now but which hadn’t been done before. One of the thrills about watching silent films for me is seeing things done for the first time with things like camerawork and editing, seeing the very language of cinema as we know it now being invented before your very eyes. Of course its Pabst’s many close-ups of Brooks that really stand out in Diary Of A Lost Girl, especially one very artful [again remember, this kind of thing wasn’t done much in 1929] shot where she stares out a rain-streaked window, the raindrops on the glass standing in for her tears. It’s been said of Brooks that she didn’t really act, but this could be because her low-key performing is in complete contrast to the usual exaggerated [though there’s not that much of it in Diary Of A Lost Girl compared to some] performing in silent films, and anyway she’s fantastically expressive with her mouth and eyes, telling you her inner thoughts in a superbly subtle way. It’s a performance that most definitely holds up today.
The film’s preference for poor people over rich extends to odd little moments like a rich man trying, and failing, to milk a cow, though the weirdest bit of levity is a truly strange sequence where a fey man turns up, having answered Thymian’s advertisement, for dance lessons. He leers and tests the bed, minces about and performs some grotesque dance moves before advancing towards Thymian. He looks for all the world like a horrid caricature of a Jew with his [obviously fake] bread, huge nose and huger wad of cash, the kind that would certainly have been common back then especially in Germany, but Pabst was a socially conscious, defiantly left-wing filmmaker, and in any case the film shows very few of its men favourably, with even Thymian’s closest friend, like her an outcast from society but in his case because he doesn’t confom to his rich uncle’s expectations, an ineffectual and weak character. There even seems to be a proto-feminist element – how many film heroines, especially in the old days, say they don’t want to marry the father of their baby? Certain aspects, including a bit of moralising creeping in towards the end, do date the film, but in some respects its approach and attitudes are quite modern.
After Brooks, Edith Meinhard makes a strong impression as Thymian’s best friend Erika, and in a film that is so loaded with sex I doubt that it was just my dirty mind wondering if she liked Thymian in a certain way. Eureka’s version of Diary Of A Lost Girl has few inter-titles – others have more including the one I saw on TV – and is accompanied by a reasonable piano score that at times gives the impression that someone is playing the music live as they watch the film, which often used to happen. It seems appropriate and isn’t irritating like a lot of soundtracks they put on silent films. The picture has its fair share of scratches and flickering contrast but the film still looks as good as it could possibly look. Both a compelling drama and a pointed condemnation of a corrupt, morally bankrupt society that really isn’t too different from the one we live in now, Diary Of A Lost Girl suffers a bit from its enforced conclusion and sometimes jumps forward a bit too much, as if there is still some footage to be found [though this isn’t the case], but remains a terrific, highly entertaning introduction to the delights of silent film, and Brooks is simply magnificent.
• New high-definition 1080p presentation of the film on the Blu-ray
• Original German intertitles with optional English subtitles
• Piano score of Javier Pérez de Aspeitia
• New and exclusive video essay by filmmaker and critic David Cairns
• 40-PAGE BOOKLET including writing by Louise Brooks, Lotte Eisner, Louelle Interim, Craig Keller, and R. Dixon Smith