The Unsung 30s Films of G.W. Pabst


Originally published on FilmStruck

The suffering maiden archetype of silent cinema was, in the hands of German filmmaker Georg-Wilhelm Pabst, not the usual vehicle for Victorian-era sentimentality that features prominently in the work of his contemporaries, but rather the blade by which society with all its ills and vices might be carved up. The emotional heuristic of easily fomented pity does not compute for Pabst’s most revolutionary muse, Louise Brooks, who braved the slings and arrows of her various tormentors with the glacial reserve that is modernity’s stock-in-trade. It is for his two Brooks vehicles, DIARY OF A LOST GIRL (’28) and PANDORA’S BOX (’29), that he is most well-known, but it is often forgotten that Pabst continued to work well into the sound-era – until the 1950s as a matter of fact. With the partial exception of his controversial reworking of Bertolt Brecht’s 3 PENNY OPERA (’31), his 30s work is has largely eluded the canon. Now, FilmStruck is offering a sumptuous array of Pabst’s work from this decade, providing a more well-rounded perspective on one of cinema’s most unjustly neglected masters.

Pabst’s first sound film, WESTFRONT 1918 (’30), was released the same year as Universal’s groundbreaking production of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and it is just as daring a treatise on the folly of the First World War – even though any rhetoric to that effect is saved for the final shot (alarmed by the film’s pacifist inclination, Josef Goebbels promptly had it suppressed). The trenches are a place of dreary routine where enemy shellfire takes on all the nuisance of a heavy rainfall, while background mortar blasts fill in the frame’s vast compositional vacancies. The way Pabst employs the din of warfare as a kind of tone-setter – the living texture of the German infantry’s experience on the front – is nothing short of remarkable. Meanwhile, the larger thematic emphasis is less on individualized trauma than on a mass distribution of suffering and wrongdoing across all participants in the enterprise of war, from the soldiers on the frontlines to the dispensers of dwindling rations back at home. The most intimately harrowing scene of the film involves a soldier who returns to his home village to find society at a standstill, his wife engaged in an affair, and an air of impersonal drudgery seizing the citizenry, all of which make him long for the tight-knit camaraderie of the front.

No less harrowing, though certainly more pointed in its message of international solidarity, is KAMERADSCHAFT (’31). The plot is simplicity itself – a fire breaks out in a French mineshaft and the German miners working in the adjacent mines, not yet affected by the blaze, embark upon a rescue mission for their comrades in labor. The story is hung upon a few reasonably inconsequential hooks, with a panoramic cast of lightly sketched characters whose individual journeys count for little against the collective sweep of the experience. The film could perhaps be faulted for its rhetorical simplicity – it’s a peacetime appeal for unity beset by few nuances or complications – but it is in the richness of the imagery that Pabst excels. The sets designed by Ernő Metzner aim for an authentic replication of life in the shafts, which Pabst embellishes with sprawls of shadow that induce a kind of geometrical frenzy – the compositions are effortlessly expressionistic without lacking for realism. In the film’s most immediately gripping sequence, the atmospherics of trench warfare from WESTFRONT 1918 return in the form of a fevered flashback on the part of one of the trapped French miners, dreading the approach of his savior from across the border.

It is with L’ATLANTIDE (’32) that the versatility – and the occasional lunacy – of Pabst’s directorial work is most brazenly trumpeted. Pabst’s films always pay fastidious attention to sound and image at the expense of narrative cogency. Here, narrative is overwhelmed by the décor – an infinitude of isometric patterns and motifs. The mad logic of the story can be traced to the original novel by Pierre Benoit, as well as Jacques Feyder’s silent screen adaptation from 1921. Put simply, it concerns the journey of two French Legionnaires to the lost city of Atlantis, where the queen – a capricious enchantress prone to jealousy – pits them against one another in a most bewilderingly conceived love triangle. Updating the yarn for the sound era, Pabst cleverly exploits the deafening silence of Saharan transit and of the winding catacombs of the lost city. A sense of demented inscrutability comes to overlay the film, which goes down like a proverbial feast of cryptogrammic fantasia.

By the late 1930s, Pabst was making movies both in the U.S. and in France, where he made LE DRAME DE SHANGHAI (’38). Set in the Shanghai of the Western imagination, where dreams go to fester in a limbo of exoticized vice, LE DRAME DE SHANGHAI is a strange compendium of orientalist thriller motifs – a fallen woman seeking a new life for her and her estranged daughter, expatriate showgirls under the thumb of a loutish nightclub owner, the looming threat of political violence, and even a criminal syndicate by the name of the Black Hand. While it nowhere approaches the mastery of, say, Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS (’32), Pabst acquits himself admirably, pinpointing the most visually fruitful stretches of the narrative and mining them for glittering resplendence and hall-of-mirrors pictorial effects. Pabst’s silent masterwork THE LOVE OF JEANNE NEY (’27) (also streaming on FilmStruck) demonstrates a similar knack for the globe-trotting espionage thriller, suffused with mad villainy and forbidden romance, only that earlier film is a work of intimate polish and beauty, where LE DRAME DE SHANGHAI stays within relatively modest confines. Curiously enough, the film ends with yet another plea for international peace and solidarity – the closest thing to a distinct auteurist stamp that emerges over the span of these films.

PASHA’S WIVES (’39), the last film of the lineup, is by far the rarest film on offer. The story of a Westernized Turkish official returning to his native country with his Parisian wife, it is another variation on the transnational cultural clashes explored in Pabst’s previous films. In this instance, the subjugation of women is Pabst’s domain of dramatic critique, anchored by a formidable performance by French leading lady Viviane Romance. While not among Pabst’s most distinguished works, it remains a piece of consummate craftsmanship that greatly exceeded my expectations. If the material he worked with occasionally faltered (scholar Luc Sante muses that the director likely didn’t pay too close attention to the quality of his screenplays), Pabst’s eye for innovative approaches to cinematic construction was forever roaming.