..

DIARY OF A LOST GIRL

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Louise Brooks, Fritz Rasp, Edith Meinhard, Vera Pawlowa, Joseph Rovensky
Director: G.W. Pabst
Audio: Dolby Stereo 2.0
Subtitles: English intertitles
Video: full-frame, non-anamorphic
Studio: Kino Video
Features: Short Film "Windy Riley Goes Hollywood"
Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: November 13, 2001

"With a little more love, no one on this earth would ever be lost."

Film ****

Louise Brooks, the 1920's quintessential flapper girl, was a luminous beauty.  However, as an actress, she was only a minor starlet at best.  Indeed, Brooks was known more for her trend-setting hairdo and wild lifestyle than for any of her Hollywood films.  After the advent of the sound picture, her film roles would become scarcer and utterly forgettable.  The new era of sound cinema would eventually sweep her aside as it had so many other silent film personalities.

But in 1928, Louise Brooks made a fateful decision that ensured her legacy as one of the silent era's most glamorous leading ladies.  In her typically impulsive manner, she broke with Hollywood, skipping out on a contract with Paramount to go to Europe to make movies.  While there, she caught the eye of G.W. Pabst, a German director who at the time was conducting an extensive search for the lead actress in his upcoming film.  Pabst soon became quite smitten with Brooks' charms and cast her as Lulu for his film, Pandora's Box.  Louise Brooks eventually starred in two Pabst films, both of which were destined to become masterpieces of the late silent era.  Ironically then, it was through German cinema, not Hollywood, that Louise Brooks achieved her greatest triumph as an actress, though this was not immediately apparent.

Pandora's Box, upon its release, was utterly scandalous.  It depicted, among other things, the silver screen's first lesbian.  Furthermore, the openly challenging sexual themes and erotically-charged cinematography were truly daring for the times.  The film was considered so immoral that it only played briefly in America and elsewhere in a heavily censored form.  The second of the films, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), related the story of a young girl who falls into prostitution.  Not surprisingly, this film fared even worse than Pandora's Box.  Before long, both films were locked away in film vaults and dismissed.

Fortunately, the 1950's saw a revival of interest in silent films.  At film festivals and college campuses where the two Pabst films were screened, it soon became apparent that these films were not failures but rather long-overlooked masterpieces.  The breath-taking lyricism of the cinematography, the confidence of Pabst's direction, and Louise Brooks' beauty in these films all ensured that Brooks' legacy would never again be forgotten.

Happily, BOTH films are now on DVD, with a Kino Video restoration DVD of Diary of a Lost Girl available for the American public.  It is an astounding and mature film, far superior to most of the early sound pictures.  The film tells a simple story - the descent of an innocent, young girl into prostitution and her eventual redemption.  Louise Brooks was well-suited for her role as Thymian, the young girl, and gives arguably her best screen performance.  She was able to project an aura of gentle charm and sweetness into the role yet presented a character who was incapable of controlling the sexual allure that drew men to her.  This duality in her nature, even in the simplest scenes of exposition, denied her character the happiness she sought, and it was essential in persuading audiences to sympathize with Thymian and to hope for her possible redemption.

The story opens on the day of Thymian's communion.  She is the daughter of an affluent pharmacist who has just discharged his pregnant housekeeper.  When Thymian learns the news, she is distraught and begs her father to reconsider.  It is to no avail, as he already has plans to hire a new housekeeper, Meta, that very day.  Thymian questions her father's young assistant over the dismissal, and he promises to show her the reason for it.  That evening, he seduces Thymian.  The story leaps ahead several months, when we learn that Thymian has given birth.  The identity of the birth-father is soon revealed, and after the young assistant refuses to marry Thymian, a decision is made by Meta during a community meeting to give away the infant and to send Thymian to a society home for lost girls.

The society home is an unhappy place, domineered by an unusually stern head mistress.  Desperately sad, Thymian entreats a former family friend, the Count Osdorff, to beseech her father to allow her back home.  The Count, a dapper but hopelessly useless young man, is easily turned away by Meta, who by now has firm control over the pharmacist.  After the Count relates this news to Thymian, she determines to steals away from the society home one evening with the help of another girl, Erika.  Once free, Thymian discovers the fate of her child, and knowing that she is no longer welcomed at home, she turns to Erika for friendship.  Together they seek shelter at a local establishment, which is revealed to be a brothel.  Thymian, homeless and penniless, soon resigns herself to her new fate.

The film flashes forward several years.  At a large party, Thymian has a chance encounter with her father.  He is now married to Meta, while his young assistant now operates the pharmacy.  The encounter is brief and silent.  Father and daughter exchange glances, the one angry, the other sad.  In the crush of party-goers, they are parted, having never spoken.  It is a moment of regret and lost chances.

Again, the film flashes forward several years.  Thymian has received a letter from the family lawyer concerning her father's estate.  Here is a possible chance for reconciliation.  Yet Thymian's decision at this pivotal moment is an unexpected one.  It is an equally noble and tragic decision, and it propels the film towards a bittersweet ending, which I will not reveal here.

Diary of a Lost Girl succeeds on Louise Brooks' restrained and graceful performance, but credit must also be given to the director, G.W. Pabst.  He has crafted his film with many simple yet achingly-beautiful scenes.  Thymian's initial appearance at her communion, a simple shot of Thymian glancing out a window into the rain, Thymian embracing her little sister, her poignant return to the society home... these and countless other scenes in the film reveal the great care and attention that Pabst gave to his visual compositions.  The result is an elegant film of such lyricism that it, along with Pandora's Box, established Pabst forevermore as one of the masters of silent cinema.

Video **  

The film's restoration utilized source material from many participating European archives.  While the intertitles are new, the age of the film is evident during viewing.  The final composite print for this DVD, though superior to any prior VHS release, is still speckled with dust, scratches, and minor indications of film decomposition.  Nonetheless, it is very decent in relation to other silent films available on DVD, and the transfer is a solid one.

A nice bonus is that nine minutes of excised footage, never seen in America, has been restored to the film.  The restored footage, which is in relatively good condition, appears to be comprised almost entirely of a brothel sequence in which Louise Brooks gives a dance lesson.  It is quite tame and played for comic effect, but was apparently censored for some reason.  The sequence is somewhat weak and inconsequential, as it adds nothing to the film and its comedic tone is at odds with the surrounding sequences.  On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with having extra footage of Louise Brooks dancing!  The remaining extra footage appears to extend a beach outing near the end of the film; perhaps the notion of people frolicking along the shores offended some sensibilities, but again, this footage is quite tame.  In general, nothing in the film or the restored footage would garner more than a PG rating in today's society (which may be good or bad depending on one's point of view).

One side note: Some shots in the brothel were arranged differently for the DVD edition than on some previous VHS editions, but in this regard, I consider the DVD as the authoritative reference.

Audio ***

In a word...WOW.  An original score has been composed exclusively for the restoration, and though it is presented only in Dolby Stereo, it is absolutely beautiful.  Right from the very first bars of music, the score evokes a lush, melancholy atmosphere.  Most silent films have merely functional and forgettable music.  This score will haunt you even after the film has concluded.  The comparison of my old VHS version with its generic score to this DVD is not even close; the new score is so well matched to the tone of the film, even employing repeating motifs for various characters or visual themes, that it elevates an already-acknowledged masterpiece to even greater heights.

My only regret is that the score has been recorded using keyboards and electronic strings and woodwinds rather than actual musical instruments.  The facsimile is quite good, but it is still a shame.  An orchestra may have been exorbitantly expensive, but the score is worthy of a true orchestral interpretation.  Nevertheless, even in its present form, this is the most moving original score I have ever heard for a silent film.

Features ** 1/2

The sole extra feature is a nifty - one of Louise Brooks' rare talkies!  "Windy Riley Goes Hollywood" is a 18-minute sound film from 1931 and is presented in an unrestored condition.  It was directed by none other than the former silent film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, under a pseudonym.  Unfortunately, the acting is stilted, the comedy is bad, and the direction is pretty awful.  Furthermore, the film's sound and picture have not weathered the years well.  Still, it's a thrill to actually hear Louise Brooks' pleasant speaking voice.  Sadly, it is fairly obvious from this forgettable short film that, having been black-listed after returning from Germany, Louise Brooks no longer had a viable film career.  After Diary of a Lost Girl, Brooks was never to star in another feature-length film again.

Summary:

Diary of a Lost Girl features Louise Brooks' greatest screen performance and, as one of the last true masterpieces of the silent era, it is a MUST-HAVE in the collection of any silent film buff.  Kudos to Kino Video for releasing this film on DVD!