Release Date(s)1929 (October 20, 2015)
Studio(s)Pabst-Film/Hom-AG für Filmfabrikation (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) represents the second and final time that silent screen icon Louise Brooks and legendary German director G.W. Pabst teamed up, and it’s every bit as strong as their previous collaboration on the classic Pandora’s Box. The story, adapted from a bestselling novel by Margarethe Bohme, follows the sad and sometimes sordid saga of Thymian (Brooks), a young woman whose fortunes steadily decline after her father’s business associate seduces her when she’s just a teenager. Thymian becomes pregnant and is forced to give up her baby before being thrown into a repressive girls’ school – a school that feels more like a prison or mental institution than any kind of facility for learning. Thymian plots an escape, but freedom only leads to more enslavement when she’s forced to work in a brothel to survive; her life is a steady downward spiral, until she finally finds a way to regain her dignity and face down her abusers, exploiters, and judges.
The material is pure melodrama, but the subtlety of Pabst’s direction – and the delicacy of Brooks’ performance – transforms it into a spellbinding portrait of societal hypocrisy and sexual double standards. One of the last great silent films, Diary of a Lost Girl is a clinic in how to tell a story visually; Pabst is a master of framing and cutting, and for two hours straight creates one expressive image after another. The movie has both economy and depth, as Pabst and cinematographer Sepp Allgeier consistently find the simplest ways to convey the most complex emotions and ideas, and to this end they’re helped not only by Brooks but an entire cast of dynamic actors. Smart, sexy, and sad in equal measures, it’s a singular piece of work.
Yet Diary of a Lost Girl was not appreciated in its time, and took a long while to be appreciated at all. The movie received poor reviews and didn't get a U.S. theatrical release for decades; part of the problem had to do with censorship issues, as the provocative subject matter led to massive cuts that may have made the movie seem incoherent. (Watching the film now, it’s still astonishing what the filmmakers got away with in terms of the suggestive material.) For many years the movie was shown only in butchered cuts, making Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray restoration a cause for celebration. Their 112-minute cut is derived from a number of international sources and attempts to reconstruct the film according to Pabst’s original intentions; the result is a flawless masterpiece of silent cinema. If the transfer itself is far from perfect, that’s mostly due to the patchwork nature of the source material; it’s often clear when scenes have been taken from different prints of varying quality, as the clarity and contrast shift from shot to shot. Still, this is as fine a presentation as we’re likely to get given the film’s history, and the soundtrack – a stereo track of a wonderfully evocative piano score by Javier Perez de Azpeitia – is superb. The extras are a treasure as well: there’s a fantastic commentary track by film scholar Thomas Gladysz that tells you everything you could want to know about the movie’s production and reception history, and the disc also includes a hilarious 20-minute talkie starring Brooks, Windy Riley Goes Hollywood. Both it and Diary are essential viewing.
- Jim Hemphill