Diary of a Lost Girl: rape, prostitution, sexuality and feminine condition in the 1920's cinema

Rape, prostitution, sexuality and feminine condition: if these matters cause controversies nowadays, during the first half of the 20th century they were veiled subjects. The movie Diary of a Lost Girl is example of the audacity of filmmaker George Wilhelm Pabst in addresses these issues in a time where (almost) anyone dared to contradict the moral codes.

Fritz Rasp and Louise Brooks in Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst, 1929) (Image: Reproduction)

Famous for launch to the stardom actresses like Greta Garbo, Asta Nielsen and Louise Brooks, G.W. Pabst made the eroticism and the social tragedy a constant in his work. Flirting with the German expressionism, the Austrian director exposes the decadence of a Bohemia devastated by war, as explores the main role of sex in society.

These aspects are seen in films like Pandora’s Box (1929), Pabst’s masterpiece. The movie eternized Louise Brooks as the sensual Lulu, young woman who uses her physical and sexual attributes to ascend socially. In an outrageous and unseen way, Pandora’s Box highlights matters like the feminine homosexuality and the women trafficking.

Alice Roberts and Louise Brooks in scene of Pandora’s Box (Image: Reproduction)

Following the great success of Pandora’s Box all over the world, Pabst got together again with Louise Brooks and, in that same year, began to produce Diary of a Lost Girl, which brings similarities with the previous film.

In Diary of a Lost Girl, Brooks is Thymian, a naive teenager who, after being abused and get pregnant, is send to a reformatory, from where she runs away. After escape, the girl, without where to go, is forced to survive by prostitution.

Louise Brooks in Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst, 1929) (Image: Reproduction)

Diary of a Lost Girl debuted in Vienna on September 29th, 1929, and in Berlin on October 15th. The film caused scandal among the conservatives of the German Evangelical Church, being banned from many cities around Bohemia. Considered pornographic, the film suffered with the censorship and significant cuts had to be made for it could return to the movie theaters.

(Image: Reproduction)

The many cuts turned the eroticism of the film into something more suggestive than explicit. The seduction scene, conceived for being a ballet, was directed, according Brooks, as a “series of subtles, almost wordless manoeuvres between an ‘innocent’ young girl and a wary lecher.” [1] The psychopathic expression of actor Fritz Rasp reinforces the dense atmosphere that permeates the scene.

Fritz Rasp and Louise Brooks in Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst, 1929) (Image: Reproduction)

Other moments of the film were particularly shocking to the audiences of the late 1920’s: the death of the housekeeper during an abortion; the reformatory’s principal, a sadistic lesbian (played by Valeska Gert) who plays gong while observes the girls of the institution working out (Brooks calls this moment as the “orgasm scene”); and the famous brothel’s scene, in which Thymian bows her neck in sexual submission.

Brooks in the famous “orgasm scene” of Diary of a Lost Girl (Image: Reproduction)

After the proper cuts, the film was re-released on February 6th, 1930. The critics, however, didn’t react well to the new censored version, which made little sense for them. According to the screenwriter Rudolf Leonhardt, “entire filmed sequences were cut without mercy. In one version, if I remember rightly, they cut 450 meters, and either in this or another version, they made another fifty-four further cuts… The film comes to an end shortly after the middle of our script, inconclusively and incomprehensively. I once saw it myself at a cinema in Paris and stayed in my seat at the end because I thought the film had broken.” [2]

(Image: Reproduction)

By that time, Louise Brooks was criticized by her acting style, “monotonous in the tragedy which she has to present” [3], distancing from the melodramatic theatrically that characterized the silent cinema, and in search of realism. For the critics, the actress didn’t act — on the contrary, she was always representing herself. This apparent defect was a great quality to Pabst, averse to melodramas and sentimentalisms. In her autobiography, Lulu in Hollywood, Louise writes: “He wanted the shocks of life to release unpredictable emotions. Every actor has a natural animosity toward every other actor, present or absent, living or dead.”

Louise Brooks as Thymian in a publicity still for Diary of a Lost Girl (Image: Reproduction)

The lives of Brooks and Thymian were emotionally connected: as her character, the actress had been molested by a neighbor, still in childhood, and was accused of provoke the act.

“The great art of films”, she completes, “does not consist of descriptive movement of face and body but in the movements of thought and soul transmitted in a kind of intense isolation.”

Making of Diary of a Lost Girl (Image: Reproduction)

THE LITERARY ORIGINS OF ‘DIARY OF A LOST GIRL’

The script of Diary of a Lost Girl is freely based on the novel Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (translated in U.S and UK as Diary of a Lost One), by Margarete Böhme, first published in Germany in 1905. On the contrary of what we may think, Pabst’s film isn’t the first adaptation of the book to the screens: the novel had already inspired a movie in 1918, starring the then young actor Conrad Veidt (The Gabinet of Dr. Caligari and Casablanca). This first version is nowadays lost.

A rare frame of the first version of Diary of a Lost Girl (1918), directed by Richard Oswald and starring Conrad Veidt and Erna Morena. The movies is, nowadays, lost (Image: Reproduction)

Narrated in first person by the main character, the novel begins in the decade of 1890. We follow the plangent life of Thymian, her joys as a girl and her tragedy at being relegated to the condition of marginality, and forced, by circumstances of life, into the prostitution as a way to survive.

Althought it’s forgotten today, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen is cited as one of the most regarded best-sellers of the first half of the 20th century. The novel was translated into 14 languages, and, by the end of 1920’s, had sold more than 120 thousand copies around Europe and America. Written as a diary, the book had its authorship contested: author Margaret Böhme introduced herself just as the editor of a diary that had come into her hands. For some people, Thymian had really existed.

For the critic and essayist Walter Benjamin, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen is “a complete inventory of the sexual trade”. In a crude way, the book lays bare the hypocrisy and the Christian false-morality that are still suppressing and sacrificing women.

“There’s no doubt that every woman ought to be free to do what she likes with her own body”, Böhme writes. “Why must the great tribunal of public opinion be set up to crush her who does differently from the rest into an abyss of infamy and contempt?”

The novel was banned of circulation after the rise of Nazism in Europe. Just in 2010 it was re-edited and re-released independently by Thomas Gladysz, founder of Louise Brooks Society. A rare American edition published in 1908 is available for public domain in the Internet Archive (click here to access).

References:

[4] BROOKS, Louise. Lulu in Hollywood — 1944
 [5] Huffington Post — A Lost Girl, a Fake Diary and a Forgotten Author
 [6] BÖHME, Margaret. Diary of a Lost One, p. 159.
 
 Cover Image: Reproduction


Originally published at imperioretro.blogspot.com.

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