Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
I always make the mistake of comparing Diary of a Lost Girl with the preceeding Brooks/Pabtst collaboration, Pandora’s Box (also 1929). Because of this, I have always preferred ‘Pandora’ because there was something, quite indefineable, that made me uncomfortable while watching ‘Diary.’ I gave the film another viewing this afternoon and I think my reservations became a little clearer, or at least a little more articulate.
The contrast between Thymian, as portrayed by Louise Brooks, and the slithering cast of characters that surround her is made as clear as what one feels while in the midst of a nightmare. Initially, Thymian is oblivious to the fact that her father is a sexual predator. She cannot comprehend the fact that he has dispensed a beloved housekeeper who is pregnant with his child, and trustingly turns to his pharmacy assistant, Meinert (played to the hilt by Fritz Rasp, a favorite Murnau villain) to explain “what happened to Elisabeth.” Brooks moves through the trauma of this scene as if through a dream. She loses consciousness once Meinert takes her in his arms, and steals her away to the secrecy of the back room in order to reenact for the unconscious Thymian the downfall of Elisabeth.
The exaggerated performances of Andrews Engelmann and Valeska Gert as the director and his wife, respectively, take the film’s ethereal atmosphere to a higher level. Thymian is thrown from the cliff of hypocrisy when she is sent to a reform school for girls, headed by Engelmann and Gert, whose characters at times border on caricature. They are the figures of nightmares, exacting unrealistic standards of obedience from the cowering, terrified pupils. Gert, especially, derives an orgiastic pleasure from the rigors of descipline inflicted.
Thymian escapes this harrowing world with the aid of an old family friend, Count Nicolas Osdorff and her fellow prisoner, Ericka, who brings her to a brothel, the next stage of her journey. The girlish and unassuming Thymian is immediately taken in and made the belle of the establishment. Once again, she is collapses in unconsciousness as she is taken to a private room by her first john.
It is this feeling of being in a nightmare that sets ‘Diary’ so much apart from ‘Pandora.’ Brooks channels that inimitable feeling of helplessness that is all at once terrifying and numbing. ‘Diary’ unleashes horrific destruction on the life of Thymian, which hinges the sexual domination of women and the conventional Western double-standard that does nothing about this domination.
I have read that Director G.W. Pabst planned a very different ending for this film, which would have included Thymian becoming the madame of her own brothel. While this conclusion would have exacted some sort of justice for the trauma that Thymian has suffered, I do not believe that it would have been appropriately within keeping of her character. After all, Thymian turns to prostitution because she only has the clothes on her back. Her family doesn’t want her, her illegitimate child is dead, and she has no practical vocational skills. It is difficult to say how Pabst would have handled this ending, however, so perhaps judgment is best left to oneself.
What is indisputable, however, is the is the gravity of Brooks’ performance. She is delicate, subtle, vulnerable, intuitive, and a host of other immortal adjectives. The Kino version of ‘Diary’ includes the rare short ‘Windy Riley Goes to Hollywood,’ which was directed by the disgraced Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle some years after the Virginia Rappe scandal. Watching this crude film drives home the injustice of Brooks’ brief career, especially when watching this following ‘Diary’ or ‘Pandora,’ both of which I consider to be some of the finest offerings from the age of silent cinema.