Louise Brooks plays the title role — the “lost girl” — in Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, or Diary of a Lost Girl. The film is a sensational story of a young woman who is seduced and conceives a child, only to be sent to a home for wayward women before escaping to a brothel. Beneath its melodramatic surface, the film is a pointed social critique aimed at German society.
Diary of a Lost Girl is the second film Brooks made under the direction of G.W. Pabst. The first, Pandora’s Box, was also released in 1929. Like Pandora’s Box, this second collaboration was also based on a famous work of literature. Diary of a Lost Girl was based on the bestselling book of the same name by Margarete Böhme. At the time of its publication, one critic called it “the poignant story of a great-hearted girl who kept her soul alive amidst all the mire that surrounded her poor body.” That summation applies to the film as well.
Böhme’s book was nothing less than a literary phenomenon. First published in 1905, it was hugely popular, and continued to sell for many years. Though issued a quarter-of-a-century earlier, European movie goers in 1929 would have known its story. In fact, German, French and Polish ads for Pabst’s film emphasized its literary origins, some even noting that Böhme’s book had sold more than 1.2 million copies. Pabst’s 1929 film, in fact, was the third cinematic adaption of Böhme’s work.
Diary of a Lost Girl debuted in Berlin on October 15, 1929. By December 5, the film had been banned by the state censor and was withdrawn from circulation. After cuts were made, the ban was lifted on January 6, 1930, and the film re-released. Diary of a Lost Girl was poorly received, not only because sound was coming in and there was diminishing interest in the silent cinema, but because the film continued to be censored and cut wherever its was shown, leaving its already problematic story in shambles.
At the time of its release, the film received many negative reviews – but for reasons which sometimes had little to do with the movie. As Brooks’ biographer Barry Paris notes, some German film critics devoted their columns to savaging Böhme’s then 25 year old book. Siegfried Kracauer, a critic at the time of the film’s release, was among them. He commented on the film in his famous 1946 book, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, writing about the Pabst film and its literary source — “the popularity of which among the philistines of the past generation rested upon the slightly pornographic frankness with which it recounted the private life of some prostitutes from a morally elevated point of view.”
The Berlin correspondent for Variety wrote something similar, but went further: “G.W. Pabst is among the best German directors still working here but has had atrocious luck with scenarios. This one, taken from a best seller of years ago, is no exception. . . . This time he has been unfortunate in his choice of his heroine. Louise Brooks (American) is monotonous in the tragedy which she has to present.”
Though screened across Europe and in Russia, the film faded from view — and film history. Diary of a Lost Girl was not shown in the United States until the 1950s, and did not receive a theatrical release in America until the 1980s. Recent restorations, however, have brought renewed attention, and in the eyes of some critics, Diary of a Lost Girl is now considered one of the last great silent films — and the near equal of Pandora’s Box.
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“The story of Thymian, the easy-going daughter of a weak-minded pharmacist, who is seduced by her father’s assistant and bears an illegitimate child. The assistant refuses to marry her and the family make her give away the child. They also place her in a correctional home for ‘fallen’ girls, which operates a strict regime. Thymian and another girl manage to escape and Thymian goes looking for her child, but finds that it has died. She seeks the address her friend gave her, which is in fact a brothel, and there she finds the wastrel young Count who has befriended her and her friend. She is taken in, dressed and encouraged to join in the drinking and partying, and ends up a prostitute. Whilst raffling herself at a party in a bar she catches sight of her father, out with his new wife and the philandering pharmacy assistant. She is overcome with shame, but cannot go to her father. She later reads of his death and that she is his heir. The young Count marries her, but when she goes to collect her inheritance she finds that the assistant has purchased the mortgage on the family business and home and is throwing her step-mother and step-siblings onto the streets. Thymian gives her all the money she has inherited so that her younger sister need never follow in her footsteps. In despair, her new husband kills himself. However, his uncle offers to take care of Thymian, and, ironically she finds herself inveigled onto the committee of ladies who run the very same correctional institution in which she was placed. Her friend has been recaptured and sent there and Thymian denounces the attitude of strictness and punishment advocating love, compassion and assistance as more effective means of correcting ‘fallen’ girls.”
Production took place in Germany between June 17 and July 26, 1929. Much of the film was shot in and around Berlin including in Staaken, a locality at the western rim of Berlin within the borough of Spandau. Location shooting — specifically the beach resort scenes — was done on the Baltic coast in Swinemünde (now Świnoujście in the extreme north-west of Poland).
Outside of Germany, this motion picture was known to have been exhibited or written about under other titles including: خاطرات روزانهی یك دخت گمشده (Arabic countries); Tres páginas de un diario (Argentina); Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (Austria); O diário de uma perdida (Brazil); Diário de uma mulher perdida (Brazil); Jornal de uma perdida (Brazil); Jornal de uma garota perdida (Brazil); Deník ztracené (Czechoslovakia); Diario de una perdida (Ecuador); Kadotetun päiväkirja (Finland); Journal d’une fille perdue (France); Trois pages d’un journal (France); ΤΟ ΗΜΕΡΟΛΟΓΙΟ ΜΙΑΣ ΠΑΡΑΣΤΡΑΤΗΜΕΝΗΣ (Greece); Egy perdita naplója (Hungary); Diario di una donna perduta (Italy); Diario di una perduta (Italy); Diario di una prostituta (Italy); Diary of a Lost Soul (Japan); Das Tagebuch einer Verfuhrten (Latvia); Kritušas dienasgramata (Latvia); Diario de una mujer perdida (Mexico); Diario de una muchacha perdida (Mexico); Dusze bez steru (Poland); Dziennik upadley dziewczyny (Poland); Pamiętnik upadłej (Poland); Jornal de Uma Perdida (Portugal); Jurnalul unei femei pierdute (Romania); Dnevnik izgubljenke (Slovenia); Tres páginas de un diario (Spain); Diari d’una perduda (Spain – Catalonia); En fallen flickas dagbok (Sweden); En förlorads dagbok (Sweden); Trois Pages D’un Journal (Switzerland); Bir Kadinin Guniugu (Turkey); Eczacinin kizi (Turkey); Diary of a Lost Girl (United States); Tres páginas de un diario (Uruguay); Diario de una perdida (Uruguay); Дневник падшей (U.S.S.R.); and Diario de una joven perdida (Venezuela).
The film is extant, though some material including a downbeat final scene is likely missing forever. With the ravages of time and it’s many censorship battles, the integrity of the film is problematic. A restoration produced by the F.W. Murnau Foundation which runs one hour and fifty-two minutes attempts to recreate the version thought closest to Pabst’s intended German release. Over the years, versions of the film have been released for home video on VHS, DVD, LaserDisc, and most recently Blu-ray. The LBS recommends the KINO DVD / Blu-ray released in October, 2015.
REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES:
— “Diary of a Lost Girl“, by Martyn Bamber (Senses of Cinema, July 2004)
— “Diary of a Lost Girl“, by Robert Byrne (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2010)
— “The Diary of a Lost Girl“, by Roger Ebert (RogerEbert.com, March 22, 2012)
— “A peek inside a Diary of a Lost Girl“, by Ryan Barnett (Toronto Film Scene, April 2015)