G. W. Pabst. 1929. 116 m. NR. Germany. Silent. Kino International.
Twenty-two-year-old Louise Brooks, from Kansas, plays an unwed teenage mother who is cast out of her bourgeois home and sent to an exceptionally creepy reformatory - from which she escapes to a high-class brothel. This was the second and last film Brooks made under the sensitive direction of G. W. Pabst (the first was Pandora's Box, also 1928), who knew a great camera subject when he saw one: He just keeps gazing at his young star and she rewards him with a cooly radiant performance.
3:00: Q&A with film critic Terrence Rafferty
A hyperventilating French critic once wrote, "Louise Brooks is the only woman who had the ability to transform no matter what film into a masterpiece." Her filmography doesn't support that claim, but when you watch her in Diary of a Lost Girl you can see what that panting Frenchman meant. Although the film is beautifully directed by G.W. Pabst, it's the coolly compelling presence of Brooks that raises the rather ordinary material above the level of well-mounted soap opera and turns it into something memorable. The screenplay (based on a popular novel by Margarete Böhme, which had already been filmed once before) follows the fortunes of a teenaged unwed mother who is exiled by her loathsome bourgeois family to a school for wayward girls--a place of such Dickensian awfulness that even a life of prostitution looks like an improvement. Brooks had herself turned her back on a middle-class upbringing (in Kansas) at 15 and had knocked around Broadway and Hollywood for six or seven years until, at the age of 22, she was invited by Pabst to come to Germany and play the demanding leading role-also a "fallen woman"-in his 1929 Pandora's Box. She was lucky because Pabst was, of all the German filmmakers of his time, by far the best director of actors. He was luckier because Brooks proved to be an extraordinarily subtle artist: an actress who could embody women's suffering without descending to self-pity-neither standing on her dignity nor ever, for a moment, surrendering it.