It isn't difficult to see why Georg Wilhelm Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl caused a bit of a headache for the censors back in 1929. Even for a movie made during the Weimar Republic era, a revolutionary time for cinema when directors were consistently pushing the boundaries with controversial tales of debauchery and Germany's seedy underbelly, the themes and social insight feel unnervingly modern. Teaming up once again with his muse Louise Brooks, the Kansas-born starlet plays Thymian, the naive daughter of a wealthy pharmacist who, in the opening scene, watches their maid leave the family home in shame when Thymian's father (Josef Rovensky) gets her pregnant.
Although it's clear to the audience, Thymian is puzzled as to why the girl has left. Her father's assistant, the creepy and much older Meinert (Fritz Rasp), invites her to the pharmacy that night on the promise to tell her everything, but instead takes advantage of the young girl and gets her pregnant. When the baby arrives, Thymian refuses to reveal who the father is but her family learn the truth from her diary, and insist that the two marry to avoid damage to the family's reputation. When she refuses, Thymian's baby is taken from her and she is packed off to a reformatory watched over by the intimidating director (Andrews Engelmann) and his tyrannical wife (Valeska Gert). After rebelling against the school, Thymian and a friend escape and join a brothel,
Like many films made during the Weimar era, Diary of a Lost Girl depicts the decay in almost every aspect of German society at the time. The lives of the rich are stripped bare, and their motivations are heavily questioned when the family send Thymian away not with her 'rehabilitation' in mind, but simply to save face. The reformatory itself is a cold and bleak place, where the director's wife bangs a rhythm for the inhabitants to rigidly eat their soup too. They are less concerned with helping the girls fit back into the society that has failed them, and more about satisfying their own sadistic desires. In one particularly effective close-up, the wife seems to be achieving some sort of sexual gratification from her monstrous behaviour.
The one place Thymian feels accepted on any sort of level is the brothel, a place where she can be herself without any kind of judgement or fear of social exile. While Thymian can at times be frustratingly naive and swoonish whenever she finds herself in the arms of a man, Louise Brooks delivers a tour de force performance that helps the audience maintain sympathy for her put-upon character, even when the film is at its most melodramatic. Even though the film is now 87 years old, Brooks's acting feels completely modern. Where most silent actors switch between rigid and operatic in their performances, Brooks is naturalistic and subtle, making it clear just why Pabst was so eager to work with her again after Pandora's Box, made the same year.
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