It is a good time to be a Louise Brooks fan in Toronto. The Silent Revue series recently presented Beggars of Life (1928), its second screening of a Brooks film in the past year, and now a rare screening of Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) will take place on Thursday, April 9, 2015 at Innis Town Hall as part of the sixth annual Toronto Silent Film Festival.
For the uninitiated, Louise Brooks is among the most recognizable faces to come out of silent cinema — you may not know her by name or in what films she starred, but you’ll no doubt recognize her iconic pageboy haircut — the “girl in the black helmet” as Kenneth Tynan dubbed her in his 1979 profile of Brooks for The New Yorker. She made some 24 films between 1925 and 1938; many utterly forgettable, if not for her screen time. Roger Ebert, writing on The Show-Off (1926), noted Brooks’ effortless ability to steal every scene she is in: “The others were there in front of the camera. She seemed actually in the scenes.” Louise Brooks has beguiled critics and film historians for the better part of a century, and has led the likes of Kevin Brownlow and Henri Langlois to extol her many virtues in numerous essays and public lectures.
Her legacy rests on two films made by the Austrian filmmaker G.W. Pabst: Pandora’s Box (1929) and the aforementioned Diary of a Lost Girl. In Brooks, Pabst found a muse that elevated his work to new heights. Writing on the collaboration between filmmaker and star, historian Lotte Eisner states, “[Brooks’] succeeded in stimulating an otherwise unequal director’s talents to the extreme. Pabst’s remarkable evolution must thus be seen as an encounter with an actress who needed no directing, but could move across the screen causing the work of art to be born by her mere presence.” (Lotte Eisener, Pabst and the Miracle of Louise Brooks)
Diary of a Lost Girl was the second film Brooks made for Pabst. Adapted from the controversial 1905 novel by Margerethe Böhme, Brooks plays Thymian, an innocent girl corrupted by the men and women around her. When Thymian becomes pregnant after she is seduced by her father’s predatory assistant, she is sent away to a reformatory for wayward girls. In two of the film’s most memorable performances, Andrews Engelmann and Valeska Gert play the sadistic headmaster and headmistress of the institution. Thymian eventually escapes amidst a midnight fracas in the dormitory. She is subsequently led by a friend (and fellow wayward girl) into working as a prostitute in a high-end brothel.
In Diary of a Lost Girl, Pabst continues to explore themes of hypocrisy and immorality in the Weimar Republic, as he had before with Pandora’s Box and The Joyless Street, a few years earlier. And like the former, Diary of a Lost Girl depicts liberated sexuality and lesbian innuendo at a time when these things were verboten on movie screens. In the film, Thymian’s entry into prostitution marks a reprieve from her dismal institutional life, and it is this very notion that caused the Prussian state censorship board to take the scissors to Pabst’s film. They charged the film with making a life of prostitution appear “easy, attractive, comfortable, and thus desirable.”
The picture’s screenwriter, Rudolf Leonhardt, remembered some 54 cuts to the film were required before it was allowed to premiere in Germany. Among the cuts was the sequence in which Thymian is seduced by her father’s assistant. Leonhardt wrote some years later, “I get the feeling that the censor, like certain rather ingenuous girls, must think that you can catch a baby from a kiss. For one copy shows the chemist’s assistant giving Thymian a kiss, and in the next image she is seen cuddling a baby.” The censorship board also objected to the film depicting the brothel favourably in contrast to the home for wayward girls. By December of 1930, Diary of a Lost Girl was banned outright by the Censor Board, and subsequently never released in North America.
Pabst’s remarkable evolution must thus be seen as an encounter with an actress who needed no directing, but could move across the screen causing the work of art to be born by her mere presence.
In the decades that followed, only these heavily censored versions of the film were available, some running as short as 79 minutes, quite a difference from the 106-minute cut initially intended for theatrical release. It wasn’t until 1997 that a major reconstruction and restoration of the film was mounted by the Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna, the Deutsche Filminstitut, and the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, Wiesbaden. Using a dupe negative from the Danish Film Institute and a copy held by the Archivo Nacional de la Imagen in Sodre Montevideo, the team was able to reconstruct a more complete version of the film than even audiences in 1929 Berlin could have seen. It has been since this restoration that Diary of Lost Girl has risen in prominence, and set itself next to Pandora’s Box (Pabst’s unequivocal masterpiece) as one of the important films to come out of the Weimar era of German cinema. And even if it hasn’t established Louise Brooks among the Mount Rushmore of silent screen stars, she’s at the very least equivalent to the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota — a unique figure whose legacy is still being carved out all these decades later.
Diary of a Lost Girl screens Thursday, April 9, 2015 at Innis Town Hall, starting at 7:00 pm, as part of the sixth annual Toronto Silent Film Festival. For more details on the festival, click here for this year’s programme, which also features screenings of The Penalty with Lon Chaney, Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, and a special presentation exploring the use of undercranking in silent comedies, by noted film historian Ben Model.