Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
Director: G. W. Pabst
Cast: Louise Brooks, Josef RovenskÃ½, Fritz Rasp
Synopsis: In Germany, chemist’s daughter Thymian is raped by her father’s assistant. When she becomes pregnant and bears a child but refuses to marry her assaulter, her outraged father sends her to a brutal reformatory.
The lovely Louise Brooks suffers once more in this follow up to Pandora’s Box. Once again she works for G. W. Pabst, the director of the earlier movie, and once again she suffers the indignities of a tragic heroine. In Pandora’s Box she was threatened with the white slave trade, in Diary of a Lost Girl she’s subjected to lesbian advances in a reformatory before becoming a prostitute who thinks she’s a dance teacher. Like Pandora’s Box, this movie could probably only have been made in Germany at the time that it was, and provides a fascinating insight into social attitudes when the country was on the cusp of becoming a Nazi regime. It’s not a very edifying depiction it has to be said, painting a portrait of a corrupt society populated by miscreants and reprobates, and suggesting a population adrift and in need of a strong leader.
Brooks plays Thymian, who we first meet on the day of her communion, which presumably means she is supposed to be around 16 years of age. She is distraught at the dismissal of the family housekeeper, with whom her father has been dallying in a way in which he shouldn’t, if you know what I mean. Thymian’s compassion for unfortunates is an enduring characteristic throughout the movie, noticeable chiefly because she is the only person to show any. Her father (Josef Rovensky), an apparently upstanding citizen is a serial philanderer, a fact acknowledged with good-natured tolerance by his friends and neighbours, who knowingly shake his hand as they file past his new housekeeper Meta (Franziska Kinz), a young woman who quickly becomes his wife. After her confirmation, Thymian is comforted by Meinert (Fritz Rasp), the chemist who rents her father’s pharmacy. Meinert seduces the vulnerable Thymian and impregnates her. When Thymian refuses to name or marry the baby’s father, her own father, under Meta’s influence, has the child sent to a midwife and Thymian placed in a reformatory.
This reformatory in Diary of a Lost Girl provides the template for all those exploitation movies set in women’s prisons that became so popular in the 1970s. The wayward girls are presided over by the director (Andrews Engelmann) and his disciplinarian wife (Valeska Gert), a couple who, just judging by appearances, are the last people you’d want caring for impressionable young ladies. He’s a lugubrious, shaven-headed giant dressed in an undertaker’s suit and wearing a pencil-thin tie, she’s a sexually repressed lady of questionable sexuality who gets all hot under the collar when she’s watching her ladies go through their daily exercises. The inmates, too, starved of male attention, appear to turn their affections upon one another, and it’s not long before Thymian finds her leg being stroked beneath the dinner table.
With the help of a fey young man called Count Osdorff (Andre Roanne), whose title belies the fact that he’s penniless after being cut off by his Uncle, Thymian and her friend Erika (Edith Meinhard) escape from the reformatory. When Thymian discovers her baby has died, she joins Erika and the Count at a safe address which happens to be a brothel run by a plump-cheeked grandmotherly type. In line with the film’s recurring theme of seemingly respectable figures in fact lacking any virtues, the Madame’s benign demeanour is deceptive, and it isn’t long before Thymian finds herself working as a prostitute.
Given the international success of Pandora’s Box earlier in 1929, it’s perhaps not surprising that Diary of a Lost Girl covers much of the same ground. Although the storylines are quite different, both films share the same faintly distasteful ingredients, primarily revolving around the exploitation and corruption of innocent girls. Brooks is once again hugely appealing in the role of ingenue, and gives a refreshingly natural and restrained performance which proves that the exaggerated gestures of many silent actors were wholly redundant. The openness of her emotions makes her both vulnerable and appealing in equal measure, but she appears to be the only person in the entire film with any good in her which, after a while, makes the movie something of a slog simply because it seems designed to make its audience despondent.
The moralistic ending has a tacked-on approach at odds with the rest of the movie’s tone, and it’s one that was forced upon director G. W. Pabst, who wanted to end the film with Thymian running a brothel. The German studio balked at such a downbeat ending and the message it sent out, and while that ending might have been a little too bleak, the one we’re left with is a weak point in an otherwise excellent movie.
(Reviewed 21st April 2013)