(1885 - 1967)

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"Louise Brooks succeeded in stimulating Pabst's otherwise unequal talent to the extreme."
- Lotte Eisner


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By vague consent, Pabst is one of those directors we have a duty to remember, even if there is only a single film still compulsory viewing. With eighty years Pandora's Box has grown into one of the most compelling studies of sensual self-destruction, whereas the once respected humanitarianism of Kameradschaft seems facile; and Waterfront 1918 is no more or less profound an antiwar film than Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front.

b. Raudnitz, Czechoslovakia

There is no doubt that around 1930 Pabst was enormously accomplished, as a realist and in his psychological exploration—what was called his "X-ray eye camera." But it is the skill that impresses more than personal conviction. In retrospect, we may notice that Pandora's Box and Kameradschaft endorse diametrically opposite attitudes to people. Was Pabst an opportunist then, a drifting director waiting for a breeze? Kameradschaft, for instance, is a compromise between locations in a real mining town and clever studio reconstruction of the mine tunnels.

It has even been discovered that Pabst shot two endings to that film—one hopeful, one despairing.

It seems appropriate to the conflicting method that he could not settle for one attitude or the other. Die Freudlose Gasse, despite its attack on inflation and urban misery, revels in its melodramatic consequences, especially the threat of the brothel awaiting Greta Garbo. And as for Pabst's undeniable coup with Louise Brooks, the originality of Pandora comes from Brooks's fearless sense of an intelligent woman unable to resist her own sensuality. Pabst's contribution is that of entrepreneur, selecting Brooks to enact the erotic spiral of Wedekind's original.

The filming is proficient and expressive, but Pabst is content to create a heavy, fog-bound Victorian atmosphere, such as he used in Die Dreigroschenoper, to smother the dramatic starkness that Brecht had intended. Such background detail is common to much of Pabst's work and it is secondhand compared with the worlds invented by Lang for Metropolis, Frau im Mond, M, or the Mabuse films. Pabst excelled in the selection of detail—objects, expressions, and quick effects of light. Certainly, with Brooks this alertness was fully stimulated; her darting spontaneity as Lulu adds to the meaning because it runs counter to the massive premeditation of the German actors. Lulu still thrills us because of Louise Brooks's effect of vulnerable emotional vitality. Pandora's Box seems the one occasion when Pabst trusted a player to carry a film, rather than the theory that the camera could penetrate psychological reality.

With Geheimnisse einer Seele this approach added to a schematic and tendentious dramatization of Freudian theories, but with Pandora's Box and Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen the discovery is startling and moving. Is Pabst or Brooks the true creative personality in those films? The tentativeness in all Pabst's work, and the dullness of most of his later films, support Lotte Eisner's feeling that Brooks had:

"succeeded in stimulating an otherwise unequal directors talent to the extreme."

Like many other German filmmakers, in 1933 Pabst moved to France. While there he made a picturesque version of Don Quixote starring Chaliapin as the Don (and with George Robey as Sancho in the English version). His one Hollywood venture, A Modern Hero, at Warners, starring Richard Barthelmess, was a flop and Pabst returned to France, and then to Austria. Lotte Eisner reported that he had tried to justify the return with a string of family circumstances, so plausible that they seemed more suspicious. Whatever the real motives, the decision weighed on him. Feuertaufe was a documentary on the conquest of Poland, and by 1943 he was forced back on the life of Paracelsus as a way of keeping in work.

His post-war films included two made in Italy, as well as Der Letzte Akt, based on Erich Maria Remarque's account of the last days of Hitler, and a film about the July 1944 plot. But Pabst was never rehabilitated, chiefly because that surface brilliance had gone from his films, revealing only a plodding sentimental pursuit of psychological orthodoxy.



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