Meet G.W. Pabst, One of Austria’s Greatest Directors

July 15, 2019 6 mins to read
Michael Garcia Mujica
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In the blur of the sands of time, certain ghosts from the silver screen rise and fall in and out of obscurity. For those with the gumption to delve into the past, the greats of the silent film world can impart priceless insights. Whether for the sake of filmography research or out of genuine interest in the people themselves, there is always something to discover.

Every now and again we like to knock the dust off of the giants of the silver screen and bring them back to life. One such individual, is the mysterious and prolific director, G.W. Pabst.

The Great Mr. Pabst

Hailing from the heavily forested and mountainous nation of Austria, Georg Wilhelm Pabst was arguably one of the brightest and most forward-thinking directors of his time.

Mr. Pabst got his start in film after World War I as an assistant director. His first film was introduced in 1923 in the form of, The Treasure’ or ‘Der Schatz. The first decade of his film subsequent film career was at the heart of German Expressionism in cinema.

One of the inherent themes associated with his work is women in adversity oppressed by a malignant social order. The end results in these films were either imprisonment or abandonment, making for a unique perspective in film at the time.

For movies of the silver screen, these themes are especially significant as his films were, sometimes, considered rather controversial in nature. The controversy is also a key part of what gave Pabst’s films such power, and that power still sends echoes into the modern world, hearkening to a very different time in cinematography.

His Greatest Films, Lost Worlds of the Silver Screen

All of the films mentioned below carry the same undertones of the oppressed woman faced by a hostile society that confined her.

Pandora’s Box

One of the most compelling films from the last 90 years, Pandora’s Box was released auspiciously on the eve of destruction, shortly before the stock market crash of 1929. It was the end of the party, one that had filled a decade with some of the most excessive displays of opulence the world has ever seen.

The film itself is an artistic tragedy that will haunt the imagination for years to come and is arguably one of Pabst’s most important works. The protagonist, Lulu, convinces a middle-aged newspaper publisher into marriage. Not long afterward he puts his bride at gunpoint in a fit of jealousy. In the struggle, she shoots him and subsequently goes on the lam with the publisher’s son who is enamored with her. As the story continues she leaves a trail of men whose lives have been devastated in the wake of her innocent yet seductive charms.

The concept of Pandora’s Box as we are familiar with from ancient Greek mythology is embodied in the character of Lulu. Tragedy befalls all who interact with her.

As such, the character comes to symbolize the destructive effects of Pandora’s Box whilst despite a flair for the amoral, retains some manner of intrinsic innocence. With many violent twists, the film carries dark undertones that are made even more intriguing as a silent film.

After narrowly escaping capture, she lives with her adopted father and descends into the squalid life of a courtesan, reduced to walking the streets. Her social descent leads to tragedy as she meets a frightful end on the dank streets of London at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

Diary of a Lost Girl

Both Diary of a Lost Girl and Pandora’s Box take a sharp turn towards the sensual and delaminates a significant progression in Pabst’s cinematic style. As both of these films feature the legendary actress Louise Brooks, who plays Thymian in this film, they represent some of his finest work.

Curiously, Diary of a Lost Girl happens to share some characteristics with the novel, Lolita. The themes that are arguably shared by the two are prostitution, pregnancy, and prejudice. These similarities are also easily spotted in Adrian Lyne’s film adaptation of the novel, Lolita which borrows from Diary of a Lost Girl quite heavily. In this way, the work of Pabst and Lyne are somewhat similar in their use of these themes.

Not only do the themes of prostitution, pregnancy, and prejudice characterize these two works, there are some arguable connections between the characters as well. Humbert, the perverse protagonist of Lolita who hungers for his wife’s daughter and winds up in prison has much in common with Meinert. In Diary of a Lost GirlMeinert plays Thymian’s father’s assistant who lusts after the young Thymian and ultimately impregnates her.

One thing that Thymian and Humbert have in common, is that they both kept diaries through times of adversity. Humbert wrote his diary from prison while Thymian wrote from the horrors of her hellish life.

In Diary of a Lost Girl the protagonist, portrayed by Louise Brooks, is thrown out of her home by family after becoming pregnant with a pharmacist’s child. Matters were made more complicated when she refused to marry him, which led to great conflict in the film. The theme is just as valid today as it was nearly a century ago in 1929.

The Joyless Street

Set in the storied city of Vienna during one of the most dreadful periods of economic depression, occurring shortly after the close of the First World War, the film is a tale of money, intrigue, and romance.

Full of ambition, Egon Stirner vies to manipulate the stock market and falls in love with Regina Rosenow, the daughter of an elite. His love is unrequited however and he embarks on an affair with Lia Leid, the wife of a prosperous doctor. As the film progresses murder and scandal ensue as characters struggle with desperation. The film evokes a powerful message in that the viewer’s sense of the character’s plight and despair is remarkably palpable.

As such, The Joyless Street is another of Pabst’s successes in imparting strong emotional currents through film.

A Career to Learn From, the Filmography of G.W. Pabst Lives on

Reaching out from the depths of the past, Mr. Pabst’s unique filmography continues to teach those working in or interested in film to this day. With a firm grip on certain minds, his work lives on and serves as a most extraordinary example of human creativity and cinematic mastery.

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