G. W. Pabst by Nikolaj Efimov was published in the Soviet Union in 1936. This short book on the German director contains a chapter on the two films Pabst made with Louise Brooks. Click on any page to view a larger image.
A translation of this chapter (pages 44 through 53) was made into English by Olga Layer.
YEARS OF RETREAT
Even in its final, fundamentally reworked form, The Love of Jeanne Ney presented a scene that was far from typical bourgeois art. Instead of anti-Soviet libel and Moscow's "secret agents," instead of the triumph of love's origin over political duty, the silver screen presented a picture that reflected in a relatively sympathetic light, though not authentic in its entirety, the workers' revolution. It is apparent that the plans for the first version of the picture, the version that was subject to an immediate ban from censorship bureaus, were even more radical. Despite the commercial success of The Love of Jeanne Ney, the director experienced a protracted boycott on the part of the movie enterprises. The UFA trust, which at one point had released Secrets of a Soul, cancelled his contract resolutely and for good. Only in the fall of 1928 was Pabst able to come out once again with a trifling comedy that should have announced his full capitulation.
However, Pabst's withdrawal from social topics should not be regarded as an artist's brutal self-restraint. Pabst was retreating into the domain of biological categories which, from the time of the movie Secrets of a Soul, presented an undeniable interest to him. The mysterious internal world of man, separated by a glass wall from the outside world, served as material for four of Pabst's films made from 1928 to 1929. During the time, when in the capitalist world there began a crisis of unprecedented proportions, Pabst was researching an origin of crises in the sexual world. The sign of true progressiveness of an artist is the fact of his voluntary return to the social topics from the insular world of Freudian conceptions.
Films of that period begin with an inconsequential comedy The Devious Path, which ridicules the petulant women of bourgeois society. Brigitte Helm and other actors, who had played in Pabst's previous movies, act out rather nicely this unsophisticated story. The fact that Pabst, contrary to his convention, does not strive to use new faces, does not seek out talented youth, speaks to a compromise, a path of least resistance. The artist, in a purely mechanical fashion, reproduces the image of a bored woman who decided to lead a distracted life no matter what, and for that reason made several trips to dance-halls. Pabst makes us understand that a careless chase after pleasures is in no way explained by the inherent depravity of the female protagonist. She is genuinely bored in the dance-hall and is horrified by the vulgar advances of a broad-shouldered boxer. At one point, Irena is entertaining her idle friends while lying in bed, but even that position of the drawing room lioness does not give her any pleasure, but, quite to the contrary, discomfits her. We are left with an impression that this strange woman is forcibly looking for strong sensations. And here Pabst steps into the domain of Freudian motifs, the domain of psychoanalysis. The busyness of the husband, who transfers his energy into his intellectual work, provokes the revolt of sexual origin in the woman's internal world. Subconsciously she wishes to stir her beloved's lost affection. Once her husband catches her in the company of his friend, a respectable man. There is nothing reprehensible about their closeness, but Irena instinctively tears off her coat and tries to convince her husband that she was cheating on him. There is nothing in that action apart from the desire to stir up jealousy, and consequently, the love of her husband.
Immediately after this consistently Freudian picture, Pabst received an honorary authorization to the production of Wedekind's Pandora's Box. The popular directors E. A. Dupont and Robert Lund both sought the honor to film this drama of triumphant flesh. But the bourgeois spectator raises the requirements. He wants to see not just the erotic, but the refined scientific explanation of the erotic. And Pabst - the once again acknowledged master, the Freudian expert, was given the right to dictate his terms. With an exceptional discrimination he searches for an actress to play the leading role of Lulu. This search rouses the curiosity of the cinematographic press; the magazines' mailboxes filled up with letters in which movie lovers name their candidates. Among those glimpses the name of the future celebrity Marlene Dietrich; the beautiful dancer from Budapest is emphatically talked about, yet the director is still not satisfied, he plans to look for Lulu overseas. And when this way the sensation reaches its apogee, and the publicity proves its money's worth, a young little-known actress Louise Brooks is invited over from the United States.
The choice of Louise Brooks is in reality fundamental. Wedekind's trilogy toured the theater stages of Germany and confirmed the popular perception of Lulu as an unholy mystical being that brings perdition to the men she meets. Like the female protagonist of the ancient myth of Pandora, Lulu carries inside her all the evil that exists in the world, this fatal "spirit of the earth" personifies the destructive force of sexual feeling.
And so we see that Pabst changes traditional concepts of Lulu as the ultimate seductress. His Lulu is a purely vivacious being with an open smile and a young well-formed body. She is so childlike and innocent, this new Lulu, that she does not even suspect the terrible qualities of her charm. Men of all ages and social gradations are powerfully agitated in her presence. From the moment of her first appearance in the film, Lulu excites an old man who brings her the electric bill; she gives him wine with the same innocent look with which she sells herself to passers-by in the final scenes. Very few know about Lulu's mystical force, among those is the old ragamuffin Schigolch, an enigmatic individual evocative of characters from E.T.A. Hoffmann's fantastic novels. Among them, also, is the editor Schön. Schön, who provides for Lulu, has a much greater importance in the film than he does in the play itself; here he is the principal character. The great theater actor Fritz Kortner, who played on stage the same part that he does in film, interprets the character of editor Schön as that of a highly intellectual man. He is a heavy-set middle-aged person who carries a monocle as a mark his social refinement. He has the jowl of an egoist-proprietor and the brow of a thinker. Having figured out the secret of Lulu's mystical abilities, he begins to jealously guard his beloved from outsiders, especially from his son Alwa, an idealist and a dreamer. But Lulu can't live under a glass dome; she is constantly surrounded by men.
In this film there is the following scene: Schön comes over to Lulu to tell her about his upcoming nuptials. He is nervous, which is apparent from the way this neat person throws an unfinished cigarette on the floor. And then it turns out that this intimate meeting takes place in the presence of a stranger, that in Lulu's room there is already hiding a little man, an old geezer, whom she proceeds to introduce with an air of absolute innocence. And when the furious Schön storms out, he runs into a brawny guy on the stairwell, Quast the athlete, who was complacently marching upstairs to relieve him. Countess Geschwitz, who in Wedekind's play is portrayed as a mannish transsexual, is especially hated by Schön. Pabst idealizes Geschwitz: both she and Lulu appear in the movie as the unfortunate victims of the sexual world hidden inside of them. Geschwitz is a young blond woman, a good friend. Only her costume suggests, to those initiated, her internal tragedy, her physical abnormality. Geschwitz's love of Lulu is not as crude as Wedekind described it, but is rather platonic and hopeless. However, during Schön and Lulu's wedding, Geschwitz allows herself to express her feelings more openly. She dances with the bride, which immediately leads to a scandalous clash with the furious Schön.
Schön's tragedy lies in the fact that he foresees his own demise but stubbornly fights against his fate. Lulu foils his wedding with the daughter of the aristocrat Zarnikov, and he is forced to challenge society and marry his mistress. This marriage is full of bad omens. The wedding feast starts off with Geschwitz's scandal and ends with Schön chasing Lulu's two drunken companions out of his bedroom. And a few minutes later he walks in on his own son Alwa dangerously close to the bride. Now Schön becomes livid. He feels the need to destroy this terrible demonic creature, even though he never stops loving her. There follows a nervous scene of explanations. A bullet accidentally strikes Schön himself, who, as he dies, throws in Alwa's face the prophetic line: "You're next!"
Lulu goes on for some time. She is accused of causing the death of editor Schön. At first glance, this court is no different from a regular bureau of bourgeois justice; even the characteristic scars on the face of the prosecutor expose him as a former German bursch-duelist. However the trial carries a somewhat unusual, even surreal tone - the accused presents a danger to society as a mystical manifestation of sexual desire. Women regard her with curiosity, men with lust; reporters notably point their cameras at her. But when the jury delivers the death sentence, someone feigns fire in the courtroom, and unknown men help Lulu escape.
In London, Lulu continues her existence for a few more months. Geschwitz and Quast the athlete perish, Alwa Schön is reduced to a beggar, and the carrier of evil continues her terrible path with the smile of innocence on her lips. In order to sustain her existence she goes to the streets with no particular pangs of conscience. And so, on Christmas night, when the Salvation Army bands sing religious psalms on all street corners and London is shrouded in fog, Lulu brings home a stranger. He is played by Gustav Diessl, a frequent participant in Pabst's movies. The stranger makes an impression of a sick, internally drained person. Timidly, as if hesitating, he follows the cheery gullible Lulu up the stairs. The stranger childishly rejoices at the sight of a Christmas pudding, encircled with candles. But then he sees the naked body of a woman, and immediately the instinct of sexual perversion, the terrible instinct of Jack the Ripper, awakens in him. A bread knife is lying on the table; the light of a kerosene lamp is reflected on the blade. And then comes the end.
It was not accidental that we gave special attention to the film Pandora's Box. It is the most significant and characteristic of Pabst's works in the period of his maximum approximation of Freudianism. The reality of this film's artistic excellence, which gave back to Pabst a lost authority in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, removed the question of restraint over the artist's creative will. However after Pandora's Box Pabst's attraction to biological themes wanes markedly, and he films, involuntarily no doubt, Margarete Böhme's sentimental novel Diary of a Lost Girl. In this new picture, the sexual life of teenagers is portrayed. Louise Brooks, Fritz Rasp, Valeska Gert once again take part in the master's work, which for Pabst is already a characteristic sign of artistic stagnation.
We see on the screen the old story of an inexperienced girl, seduced by a scoundrel pharmacist, confined to a girls' reform school. There, religious preconceptions reign and sexual questions are secretively discussed. However, it is interesting that in this picture, released in November of 1929, through a web of biological themes there push again and again the sprouts of social conceptions. They shoot through in the scenes of nightly riots in the reform school and in the wonderfully socially colored figures of the educators, in the conveyance of their hypocrisy and despotism.
Not too long ago Pabst's films were filled with sexual symbols; now these symbols retreat under the onslaught of realistic tendencies. This process is full of contradictions. Thus, at the end of 1929 Pabst takes part in the production of an Alpine movie The White Hell of Pitz-Palu. The author of the picture is in essence Arnold Fanck, who under the intricate metaphysics of his production was hiding the ideology of oppositional fascism. Pabst cooperated with Fanck only as an experienced director, yet it is not difficult to see his mark on the movie's dramaturgy itself. The character of the Lonely Johannes, played by Gustav Diessl, undoubtedly goes back to the Freudian period in the works of the creator of Pandora's Box. Johannes's loneliness is not social but sexual. It is the loneliness of a man who has lost his female companion. For years Johannes wanders around the mountain that killed his Maria; this "visible man's" entire being personifies the tragedy of sexual loneliness. A swarm of erotic symbols surrounds this figure (the torn off rope, clenched in the man's hand, the melting pieces of ice), while the rest of the movie's symbolism, which goes back to Fanck's creative manner, has a different, purely philosophical direction.
This picture, which expresses sexual longing, came out in the winter of 1929, around the same time as the movie Diary of a Lost Girl. And even though Diary of a Lost Girl also touches upon sexual problems, it does so in a social format and shows how, as a result of a bourgeois upbringing, a teenage girl intrigued by the "Burning mystery" makes a wrong move and becomes "lost" in the eyes of society, while her seducer calmly escapes retribution. This film, which at times is reminiscent of the famous, anonymous Diary of a Teenager, ends with Thymiane, the movie's female protagonist, defiantly taking in a child to raise as her own, a child to whom she wants to give a clear, healthy conception of life.
Thus ends the long series of Pabst's Freudian productions. The artist goes back to the social themes.