G.W. Pabst was the third great Germanic filmmaker of the 1920s (after Murnau and Lang) but without the restorations and resurrections of Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, his two transcendent films with Louise Brooks, Pabst’s name and reputation would likely linger in obscurity. Pabst, along with another great director of women Josef Von Sternberg, had the misfortune of artistically peaking in the early 1930s, one of the lesser-appreciated eras of narrative film.
The rise of the Third Reich sent Pabst packing to England, then France and the United States but his meticulous and expensive filmmaking habits never sat well with cost-conscious producers of the Depression, so Pabst returned to Germany where, yielding to pressure, he made two propaganda films for the Nazis. Pabst later repudiated his work for the Fuhrer with the damning Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1955), but for many critics the stain of his collaboration was too deep to ignore.
So, what can one make of Pabst at this late date? The films of his great period (1925-34) remain a marvelous blend of sophisticated storytelling and realistic adult entertainment. Never a keen enthusiast of Expressionism, this actor’s director boasted a fluid palette. Pabst was one of the first directors to cut on the action and gracefully move his camera in time with his world-weary protagonists.
Unfortunately, Pabst’s brand of psychological cinema lost favor during the populist 1930’s, but by then his subjective influence was imprinted on the psyches of a varied collection of young filmmakers (Renoir, Carne, Bresson, Hitchcock, Siodmak, Tourneur, etc.) who also dwelt in the netherworlds of the soul.
Georg Wilhelm Pabst was born in Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic) to parents of an Austrian bloodline. G.W. was brought up in a comfortable Viennese household and planned to become an engineer until a keen interest in the arts led him astray. After attending a school for decoration in Vienna, Pabst moved to Switzerland where he took up acting.
The next several years saw Pabst touring Europe with several theatrical troupes. Georg soaked up the atmosphere by standing in the footlights and received some valuable behind the scenes lessons. Pabst soon sailed across the Atlantic to the United States where he spent two years acting and directing German plays for immigrant audiences in New York and along the eastern seaboard.
At the outbreak of WWI Pabst’s attempt to return to Austria was foiled when he was picked up by French authorities. Resigned to spending the duration of the war in France, the savvy Pabst managed to find work, and success, as a theatrical director. By the time Pabst re-established himself back in Vienna in the early 1920s he was way ahead of the cultural curve and quickly embraced the burgeoning avant-garde theatre movement.
Pabst quickly sensed his future lay in the new German film industry, where the possibilities to explore his interest in psychological realism seemed boundless. Pabst took leave of Vienna for Berlin where he worked as an apprentice as a film actor, assistant director and screenwriter before finally getting his chance to direct a film.
Pabst’s debut feature, Der Schatz (The Treasure), takes place at a bell-maker’s cottage in a small Slovenian village where an elderly handyman is convinced an ancient treasure is buried. The bell-maker, his wife, and a young traveler who fancies their daughter all make fun of the handyman but curiosity get the best of the young couple and they set out to find the treasure first.
The old man discovers the booty and offers to share it with the parents if they offer him the hand of their daughter. The young couple escape from the house just in time as greed gets the best of the bell-maker and his wife and they suffer the wrath of the handyman. Der Schatz turned out to be an accomplished first effort combining the then-current trend for Expressionistic set design with Pabst’s penchant for natural performances.
Pabst’s second film Gradin Donelli is apparently lost but G.W. returned in 1925 with the stinging The Joyless Street, his first important work. Set in the desperate days of post war Vienna, the city’s poor are at the mercy of unscrupulous shopkeepers and greedy financiers who manipulate the markets for their own gain.
Working girl Greta Rumfort (the fetching Greta Garbo in her second film), the virtuous daughter of a poor professor, spends much of day resisting the advances of her lecherous boss. Her nights aren’t much cheerier as she fights to keep her place in line in front of the shop of the cruel local butcher (Werner Krauss) who may, or may not, have a cut of beef for his famished customers when he opens shop in the morning. Meanwhile, the town’s money men think nothing of creating an economic Depression to line their pockets and the idle rich play make the huge mistake of playing with fire when they go slumming in the ghetto.
While highly critical of the governments that left the German speaking peoples bereft in the 1920s, Pabst’s humanism shines through in an evocative portrait of a heartless and decadent time.
Pabst’s next film, the eerie and highly personal Secrets of a Soul, features Krauss as Martin Feliman, a college professor haunted by dreams of murder. While shaving the nape of his wife’s neck Feliman is startled by a blood-curdling scream. When he finds his neighbor has been murdered, the retiring Feliman begins to have frightening and hallucinogenic dreams (imaginatively shot by Robert Lach and Guido Seeber) bringing out the dark side of his psyche.
Dedicated to Sigmund Freud, this deft examination of the subconscious holds up remarkably well especially when weighed against some of Hollywood’s more pretentious contributions (Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, Whirlpool, etc.) to the experimental subgenre.
Long thought lost the partially reconstructed Abwege is another psychological study of a frustrated young woman struggling to get out from under the thumb of her controlling husband. Unhappy with her status as a trophy wife Irene Beck (Brigitte Helm) defies her rigid husband Thomas (Gustave Diessl) to make a date with the talented but poor artist Walter Frank (Jack Trevor). After a whirlwind flirtation, Walter suggests they run off to Vienna together but Irene is devastated when he doesn’t show up that night to meet her at the train station.
Deflated but not defeated, Irene attends a Berlin nightclub where she indulges in booze and drugs and ultimately meets up with weak-willed Walter. They go back to his flat, presumably to consummate their relationship, when Irene is surprised by the appearance of dour Thomas.
A tense, often realistic take on an unhappy marriage, Abwege remains most interesting for the titillating cabaret sequence where Irene follows a hophead into the backroom and loses her bourgeois virtue. She won’t be able to go home, again.
Pabst reputation as a “woman’s director” is largely due to a scintillating trilogy of films he made at the end of the silent era. The Love of Jeanne Ney is a romance of the Russian Revolution in which a diplomat’s daughter finds herself impelled to leave the Crimea after her Bolshevik boyfriend murders her father. The unhappy Jeanne (Edith Jehanne) returns to Paris to work for her uncle unaware her lover (Uno Henning) is also in France in service of the Soviets. Their reconciliation is nearly sidetracked by the debauched Khalibiev (Fritz Rasp), a true Pabstian libertine.
Sumptuously shot by Pabst favorite Lach and the great cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner, The Love of Jeanne Ney is a sleek and atmospheric political thriller that established Pabst a director of the first rank.
The film’s box office success gave him the freedom to pursue even more controversial material: Frank Wedekind’s notorious play Lulu. Pabst’s controversial choice of American Louise Brooks to play the exotic dancer-seductress put the long-delayed production of Pandora’s Box behind the eight-ball before cameras even rolled. The fresh-faced, Kansas-born Brooks didn’t look remotely German but Pabst felt she had an intangible, luminous “something” that would come out on screen.
The story, patched together from two Wedekind plays, is thin and episodic. Early on, the wild child Lulu ensnares the respectable Dr. Schon (Fritz Kortner) into her trap, unaware the doctor’s handsome son, Alwa (Frances Lederer) is also hopelessly in love with her. When scandal breaks, Schon begs for Lulu to commit suicide, but following a life and death struggle she turns the gun on him instead.
After being convicted of manslaughter Lulu escapes with Alwa and after a bizarre odyssey on train and ship she is on the verge of being sold into slavery to an Egyptian businessman. Lulu and Alwa jump ship and end up in London where poverty forces her to walk the streets. One fateful night, she runs into a handsome and shy stranger (Gustav Diessl). The charmed Lulu offers him to come up to her flat free of charge for a romantic rendezvous, clearly oblivious to the fact he is Jack the Ripper.
Pabst’s masterpiece fuses together the influence of German Expressionism—thanks in large to Gunther Krampf’s sharp cinematography—with the director’ seamless storytelling and impressionistic style. Brooks is truly a revelation. Possessed with guileless beauty and knowing sexuality, her Lulu wields an indomitable power over the weak and strong men who have the misfortune to cross her path.
Brooks’ second film with Pabst, Diary of a Lost Girl, is a Bunuelian tale of a good girl who falls from grace and into the depths of depravity. Daddy’s girl Thymiane Henning (Brooks) finds her world turned upside down when her cherished housekeeper is mysteriously dismissed then murdered.
She is further dismayed to find the new servant, Meta (Franziska Kinz) is putting the moves on her father (Josef Ravensky). Thymiane turns to her father’s assistant Meinert (Fritz Rasp) for answers but he only seduces her, leaving her with an unwanted child and scandal.
Thymiane is placed in a strict school for wayward women where she resists the advances of a weird dorm mother (Valeska Gert) and her creepy husband (Andrews Engelmann). Thymiane ultimately escapes, but abandoned by her family, she turns to prostitution in order to survive.
When her father dies, as the sole benefactress she turns the tables on Meinert and gives the destitute Meta all of her money, depriving him of an unethical business venture. Thymiane finally catches a break when she marries a well-to-do client but the past comes back to haunt her when the now respectable woman revisits the scene of her great shame.
Brooks plays the object of desire with a worldliness beyond her years but Diary of a Lost Girl would meet the same disappointing box office fate as Pandora’s Box. The arrival of sound immediately rendered the many masterpieces of the late silent period old-fashioned so Pabst’s all too brief collaboration with Brooks would have to wait over twenty years before being given their rightful place in the film pantheon by French and German critics.
Given his modern style Pabst had little trouble adjusting to sound. His fluid camera and naturalistic style in directing actors went a long ways in making the primitive early talkies come alive.
Set in the claustrophobic trenches of France during the final days of WWI, Westfront 1918 follows the plight of four German infantrymen sent to the front to fight a war which has already been lost. While emphasizing the futility of war Pabst displays little of the heavy-handedness that mars Lewis Milestone’s entry into the anti-war genre, All Quiet on the Western Front.
At home and the front, the soldiers are hardened by their experiences yet never become cynical, as witnessed by a soldier’s long anticipated furlough that goes horribly awry when he catches his wife in bed with a civilian. The wronged man accepts his wife’s excuse she was only trying to support herself and turns the page.
Such practicality in the face of infidelity is a stark contrast to Douglas Sirk’s similarly-themed A Time to Love and a Time to Die, for Pabst’s protagonists are only looking to survive their horrific ordeal and bring some sanity back into their post-war lives.
Pabst’s next project, the Brecht and Weill musical The Threepenny Opera, brought the director back to an urban setting, this time the gritty streets of Victorian London. This Rabelaisian tale of charming grifters and incorporated beggars who wield their influence to bring the city to a standstill couldn’t help but appeal to Pabst’s sympathy for the underdog.
Though richly atmospheric and full of lusty performances (including an all too rare appearance by Weill chanteuse Lotte Lenya as the street smart Jenny) the narrative gets tangled in socially-conscious threads devised for Pabst’s film. This is especially the case in the convoluted finale where Mack (Rudolph Forster) reaps the windfall of his friends’ wise financial investments.
Set in a pair of bleak towns along the French-German border, Kameradschaft follows the desperate plight of several French miners trapped underground in a cave-in, as an out of control fire rages around them. Against the wishes of their community, a band German miners cross the border to help their brother miners in distress. Among the heroes are three Germans who went toe-to-toe with their French “brothers” at a café the prior evening. The men use their knowledge of the old mine to burrow inside and rescue the remaining survivors.
Though the film’s goodwill is dated, Pabst wrings great emotion out of the people affected by the disaster. Especially poignant is the brief scene where an anxious German wife runs after her miner husband who has volunteered to help the French. As a last resort, she presents their small child to him in the hope he will abandon the hopeless folly and return home.
Pabst’s liberal sensibilities clashed with the newly-installed Third Reich, so he departed his adopted homeland soon after the completion of Kameradschaft. He wouldn’t make another film in Germany for ten years.
Pabst’s international career began with a pair of multi-lingual and independently financed productions; The Mistress of Atlantis and Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
Atlantis is a grand fantasia about an exhausted French foreign Legion officer Lieutenant Saint-Avit who claims he found the fabled lost city in the Sahara desert. Saint-Avit spins a far-fetched tale about a squadron of men who wander into a harem-like compound overseen by the exotic Anitnea (Brigette Helm). His head left spinning by the circus-like atmosphere, a disbelieving Saint-Avit is told he will betray and kill his best friend for Anitea’s hand.
Featuring the flowing camerawork (by the legendary cinematographer Eugene Schuftan) that anticipates the masterworks of Ophuls, Pabst’s touch is refreshingly light and surreal—borrowing freely from the Bunuel-Dali template.
The director’s affectionate and hilarious musical take on Adventures of Don Quixote has been inexplicably overlooked by critics and cineastes for eight decades. Pabst struck gold with the casting of Russian opera legend Feodor Chaliapin as the brain-addled Man of La Mancha who strikes out with his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza (George Robey) to do noble deeds for the fair Dulcinea. The noble Chaliapin plays the Don with a fetching frailty and his verbal jousts with the Cockney (!) Sancho make for sheer delight.
Pabst directs the picaresque tale at a leisurely pace which makes the sequence of the Don’s mad dash and impaling of the windmill all the more spectacular. In the heartbreaking finale, where the local government burns the madman’s beloved books causing his premature death, Pabst takes a swipe at the totalitarianism threatening to engulf Europe. It was too little, too late as Continental audiences largely ignored the film.
Based on a play by Leslie Bush-Fekete Du haut en bas (High and Low) is a lively character-driven piece about the nosy tenants of an apartment complex in Vienna. Having just graduated with a doctor’s degree Marie de Ferstal (Janine Crispin) is forced to accept a demeaning job as a housemaid to a nasty snob who runs roughshod over all her hired help. Football star Charles Boulla (Jean Gabin) takes a fancy to Marie but she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings.
Marie does notice a spark of sensitivity in the local hero, so she agrees to help educate him in the finer arts. Meanwhile, Boulla’s eccentric upstairs neighbor Mr. Podoletz (Michel Simon) is fighting a losing battle with his landlord. Podoletz grows increasingly daffy as eviction looms but when rumor spreads he has hung himself his neighbors react with surprising compassion.
Considering the powerhouse cast (including Peter Lorre as an amusing beggar) and the richness of the production it is surprising Du haut en bas lingers in such obscurity. Pabst does his best to keep the action flowing by moving his camera all over the compound and quickly inter-cutting the between the many threads of the narrative. Du haut en bas turned out to be a fine chamber work and one of the last personal films Pabst would make.
Jobs in the film industry were scarce in France in the depths of the Depression, so Pabst would soon cross the Atlantic and take the train to Hollywood to make the ill-fated A Modern Hero for Warner Brothers. This studio of the people was probably the worst Hollywood landing spot for a filmmaker with such meticulous methods. Hero is a mostly by the numbers rise and fall saga of one Pierre Radier (Richard Barthelmess), a European circus rider who transcends his meager beginnings to become a ruthless businessman.
Beyond the sophisticated mother-son relationship between Marjorie Rambeau and Barthelmess, there wasn’t much else to suggest a major auteur was at work behind the camera. Frustrated by meddling producers and unable to secure a contract in Hollywood Pabst returned to a Europe on the brink.
Back on the continent Pabst settled in France and his first film shot there, Mademoiselle Docteur, was an often maddeningly complex spy caper, but a welcome return to form. Set in exotic Salonika (Thessaloniki) at the end of WWI and featuring Vigo and Renoir heroine Dita Parlo with several other luminaries of French cinema (Pierre Fresnay, Viviane Romance, Jean-Louis Barrault, Gaston Modot, etc.), the muddled plot follows the adventures of Anne-Marie Lesser (Parlo), an American newspaper reporter suspected of being the notorious spy Mademoiselle Docteur.
The murky thread of the story quickly becomes tangled and almost incomprehensible but the dazzling performances from the stars and the luminous cinematography by Schufftan helps makes Mademoiselle Docteur an entertaining exercise in style.
Compared to this ambitious effort Pabst’s final French film Jeunes files en destresse (Girls in Distress) about life in a girl’s boarding school seems minor, but it would turn out to be one of the most humane films in his canon. Jacqueline Presle (Micheline Presle) is ostracized by her new classmates when it is learned her father (Andre Luguet) is the notorious lawyer who has handled most of their parents’ divorces. With the help of a stalwart, acrobatic friend Jacqueline wins popularity when she organizes an anti-divorce league in the dorm helping the girls rally against the amorality of adults.
Released just after Hitler invaded Poland Jeunes files en destresse seemed a relic out of another place and time, but seen today it makes for a surprisingly sensitive take on adolescent pain and yearning. For reasons that seem inexplicable today Pabst would return to his Vienna home days before Germany invaded Poland and would soon fall under the auspices of Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Josef Goebbels.
It’s difficult to gauge how compliant Pabst was in making feature films for Nazi Germany. Unlike his former compatriot Leni Riefenstahl he wasn’t enlisted to make propaganda, if anything the two films he made under Goebbels’ watch were politically benign and tended to follow the director’s recent trajectory towards creating thoughtful entertainment.
Both Komodianten (The Comedians) and Paracelsus are handsome historical productions about distant German luminaries (actress Friederike Caroline Neuber and the Swiss-born physician from the 16th century) who, oddly enough, both struggled against backward thinking and prejudice.
After the war Pabst won critical and public redemption by making The Trial a historical drama about the Tiszaeszlar Affair, based on a notorious pogrom against Jews in a small Hungarian community in 1882. Pabst kept active in the 1950s directing films and staging operas in Italy.
The most provocative works in the last decade of his professional activity would be two productions showed where Pabst’s alleged Nazi sympathies lay, Der letzte Akt (The Last Ten Days) and Es geschah am 20. Juli (It Happened on July 20th). The former film is a claustrophobic yet surprisingly straightforward drama about Hitler’s final days in the Berlin bunker. Der Fuhrer and his delusional cabinet soldier on with far-fetched plans to turn the tide of war even as the eastern front collapses outside.
A taut re-enactment of the plot to assassinate Hitler Es geschah am 20. Juli turned out to be Pabst best and most exciting film in years. Army department Chief of Staff Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Bernhard Wicki) and head of General Army Office headquarters General Friedrich Ulbricht (Eric Frey) are the prime instigators of the Valkyrie, an elaborate conspiracy to rid Germany of Hitler and end the war and all the senseless killing.
Small mistakes trip up the plotters and there is rumor Hitler has survived Stauffenberg’s suitcase bomb. Inevitably some clever machinations by Goebbels and fear of reparations turn the tide against Stauffenberg and his men leading to their doom and more mass slaughter.
Checking in at a compact seventy-five minutes and chalk full of the dynamic camerawork and fast-paced editing that was his signature, 20 Juli would turn out to be Pabst’s swansong to a tumultuous and violent half-century of German history.
Books on Pabst:
Louise Brooks: A Biography – Barry Paris **** There is shamefully little reading material available exclusively about Pabst. In the meantime, this well-researched biography about the director’s shimmering Trilby fills in a vital gap. Paris meticulously reconstructs the pair’s halcyon days of 1929 and offers plenty of great critical insight to boot.
Lulu In Hollywood – Louise Brooks **** Beyond being a beauty for the ages, Louise Brooks was a ferociously smart woman. This bitter and illuminating memoir is truly a cookie filled with arsenic but remains an essential read for all enthusiasts of early cinema.
From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film – Siegfried Kracauer **1/2 Kracauer’s leaden psychological examination of the early German cinema hasn’t aged well, in fact it’s devolved into something of a punching bag for theme-crazy Auteurists and enthusiasts of expressionistic film. Nonetheless, it has remained in print for over 60 years. The author is grudging in his praise for Pabst’s originality and intelligence but, more often than not, takes him to task for indulging in cheap histrionics and melodrama.
Films by Pabst:
1923 Der Schatz (The Treasure) ***1/2
1925 The Joyless Street (Die freudloss Gasse)****
1926 Secrets of a Soul (Geheimnisse einer Seele)***1/2
1927 The Love of Jeanne Ney (Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney) ****
1928 Abwege ***1/2
1929 Pandora’s Box (Die Buchse der Pandora) *****
1929 Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen) ****
1929 The White Hell of Pitz-Palu (w/Arnold Fanck & Leni Riefenstahl) ***1/2
1930 Westfront 1918 ***1/2
1931 The Three Penny Opera (Die 3 Groschen-Oper) ***1/2
1931 Kameradschaft ***1/2
1932 The Mistress of Atlantis ***1/2 (French version entitled L’Atlantide)
1933 Don Quixote **** (French version entitled Don Quichotte)
1933 Du haut en bas (High and Low) ***1/2
1934 A Modern Hero ***
1937 Mademoiselle Docteur ***1/2
1939 Jeunes filles en detresse (Girls in Distress) ***1/2
1943 Paracelsus ***1/2
1955 Der letzte Akt (The Last Ten Days) ***1/2
1955 Es geschah am 20. Juli (It Happened on July 20th) ***1/2