Though many of his films became merely historical curiosities, G.W. Pabst (1885-1967) was one of Germany's leading early film directors. A master of silent realist cinema, Pabst explored various genres, and his post-World War I films show a marked concern with the evils of Nazism and anti-Semitism.
Background in Theater
Georg Wilhelm Pabst was born on August 27, 1885, in what was then Raudnice in Bohemia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which dissolved following the defeat of Austria-Hungary in the First World War. Later spelled Roudnice, the city is now located in the Czech Republic. Pabst attended school in Vienna, where the family had moved when he was a child. He studied engineering until 1902, when he began studying at Vienna's Academy of Decorative Arts. In 1904 Pabst began working as an actor, and the following year he moved to Zürich, Switzerland. Over the next four years he traveled to the European cities of Salzburg, St. Gallen, and Danzig. In 1910 he traveled to New York to direct and act in German-language plays.
Pabst was in France when World War I broke out, and he was arrested and held as an enemy alien in a prisoner-of war camp near Brest. He remained in that camp for the duration of the war, but nevertheless managed to organize a theater company and direct French-language plays. Pabst returned to Vienna after the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, and fit right in with the avant-garde theater of the era. He directed Expressionist theater in Prague, including two plays by Frank Wedekind, König Nikolo and Erdgeist (Earth Spirit). In 1919 Pabst became head of the Neuen Wiener Bühne (New Vienna Stage). But he soon had doubts about the artistic future of theater; film was the obvious next step.
In 1920 Pabst relocated to Berlin, where for the next two years he served as a protégé of director Carl Froelich. In 1921 he acted in Froelich's film, Im Banne der Krolle, and in 1922 Pabst was Froelich's assistant and scenarist for Der Taugenichts and Luise Millerin. Pabst directed his first film, Der Schatz (The Treasure), in 1923. The film, about a buried treasure that tears apart a blissful family, was Pabst's only true Expressionist film. Critics and film historians have tended to downplay the effort. Furthermore, it was not a commercial success. Froelich, who had helped fund Der Schatz, once again came to Pabst's rescue when his protégé could not find work. Because of his own busy schedule he recommended Pabst direct Gräfin Donelli (Countess Donelli) in 1924. A less than ordinary melodrama, the film proved to be a commercial success. In fact, the producers tried to entice Pabst to do more work in that vein, but he did not want to fall into the rut of churning out commercial fluff. That year, 1924, Pabst married Gertrude Henning.
In 1925 Pabst directed his first major film Die Freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street), which starred Greta Garbo and Asta Nielsen. It was his first attempt at cinematic realism, and in it he expressed the cynicism and resignation that gripped a defeated Germany during the years of the Weimar Republic. The film's opening title card quoted from Dante's Inferno, "Abandon hope all ye who enter here," suggesting the despair that gripped everyday life in Germany. While this was Pabst's initial move toward the realism that would define his career, the film included melodrama and, to a far lesser degree, Expressionism. Yet this film, whose story included murder, prostitution, starvation, and economic misfortune, was a far less sentimental evocation of the urban environment than most of its contemporaries, especially D.W. Griffith's Isn't Life Wonderful?, which was filmed in Germany in 1924. Griffith's location shots are considered superior to Pabst's, who employed sets much of the time, but otherwise Pabst was eclipsing the cinema pioneer.
Die Freudlose Gasse was a highly successful film, though censors everywhere made cuts in it, so that in different countries different aspects of the film were emphasized. It was originally ten reels long, but after its premiere it became "a mere shell of a film," as Lee Atwell wrote in the book G.W. Pabst. Despite this, Pabst's artistic vision still shone through. This is the film that really launched Garbo's career. Though she had previously acted in a few unknown Swedish films and in Pabst's earlier film, Garbo's performance in Die Freudlose Gasse caught the attention of Hollywood moguls.
In his next film Pabst, who was an admirer of Sigmund Freud, turned to psychological drama and the surreal. Through various connections he managed to base Geheimnisse einer Seele (Secrets of the Soul) (1926) on an actual case history. It's a film about sexual anxiety and impotence, complete with hypnosis and dream sequences and possibly the first overtly psychological use of dreams in German cinema. Although the film is marred by a sentimental ending, it was successful with critics, audiences, and the censors, who found very little to condemn in it.
Pabst's next major film was 1927's Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney (The Love of Jeanne Ney), based on the novel of the same name by Russian author Ilya Ehrenburg. The subject matter reflects Pabst's growing sympathy with the Left: he was involved with a German film worker's syndicate named Dacho and in 1928 joined the organization Volksverband der Filmkunst (Popular Association for Film Art). The Ehrenburg novel is set partially in Russia during the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, all the more remarkable since UFA, the German studio conglomerate that produced the film, was at first run by military men and bankers, two notoriously politically conservative groups. At about the time of the filming of Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney, ownership of UFA was transferring to the equally conservative Hugenberg Press. The film was another artistic leap forward for Pabst in that he used fewer title cards for character exposition, letting the camera reveal the characters. In Geheimnisse einer Seele the camera had played the primary role in revealing the protagonist's psychological dilemma; now Pabst employed it in a more subtle manner.
For his next film Pabst returned to the work of Frank Wedekind, conflating the Swiss-German dramatist's two "Lulu plays," Erdgeist, written in 1895, and Die Büesche der Pandora (Pandora's Box), written in 1905. These were two Expressionistic plays that transformed the Greek myth of Pandora into the modernist Lulu, whose sexual desire consumes men. In Pabst's hands the Expressionism was toned down by a naturalism that, ironically, Wedekind had revolted against but which Pabst used to magnificent advantage. The resulting film, Die Büesche der Pandora, made in 1928, is generally considered Pabst's masterpiece. Pabst's use of American actress Louise Brooks in the title role produced a Lulu who was at once a predator and an innocent: Lulu seduces and abandons men and women and even commits murder, yet she remains loyal to her love, nearly falls victim to a white slave trader, and in the end (in the film's classically Expressionist scenes) prostitutes herself and falls victim to the notorious London rapist Jack the Ripper. Brooks makes all of this believable. Pabst had originally thought of casting Marlene Dietrich in the role of Lulu, but her screen persona lacked the innocence of the unknown Brooks.
Critics were cool toward Die Büesche der Pandora, dismayed that Pabst had turned away from the social themes that marked Die Freudlose Gasse and Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney. The film's sexual explicitness was decimated by censors or banned altogether. Still, Pabst's mythic vision of feminine desire has been preserved by cineastes in France and Switzerland who managed to assemble a complete film from existing prints, using Pabst's shooting script as a guide. The result is one of the greatest films of the silent era.
Pabst's other film starring Brooks was Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (Diary of a Lost Girl), filmed in 1929. Prior to that, also in 1929, he had made Die Weisse Hölle vom Pitz-Palü, a rather melodramatic film whose plot centers around a mountain climbing tragedy. The film features Leni Riefenstahl, who would gain fame as the most prominent Nazi film documentarian.
Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen was Pabst's final silent film. This time he carried the eroticism of Die Büesche der Pandora into the realm of social realism, answering his critics, while he indicted the decadence of Weimar Germany. Brooks plays an innocent caught in society's sexual hypocrisy: a young woman made pregnant but unable to marry her seducer because her dowry is inadequate. She is forced to give up her child (who dies), is sent away to a reformatory from which she escapes, and ultimately ends up in a brothel. Where Die Büesche der Pandora employed Expressionist techniques to reveal gloom and death in counterpoint to the vital naturalism of Lulu, in Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen Pabst maintained an unremitting realism throughout the film. The critics were again unkind to Pabst, who made an alternate ending for domestic German distribution that was devoid of irony and turned the protagonist into a high-society heroine who denounces the cruelty of the reformatory.
The "Social Trilogy"
Pabst's first "talkies" were what Atwood has termed his "social trilogy." These films include the antiwar Westfront 1918 (1930), Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera, 1931), and Kameradschaft (Comradeship, 1932). In 1930 he also made Skandal um Eva (Scandalous Eva). Of the social trilogy films, Die Dreigroschenoper is the best known but the weakest in terms of the realism on which Pabst's reputation rests. Westfront 1918, released the same year as another antiwar classic, All Quiet on the Western Front, is a tale of four German soldiers in the trenches during the final months of the World War I, living a life of horror framed by boredom. Since Westfront 1918 was Pabst's first sound film, he wanted to express the aesthetic possibilities of the new medium, and most film historians have judged his attempt a success.
Kameradschaft, the final film of the trilogy, is an attempt to portray the friendship between the French and German peoples. The story is about a mine disaster on the border of France and Germany, in the province of Lorraine. Significantly, Pabst used French and German actors, each speaking their own language, to heighten the tension and the realism. In 1958, more than twenty-five years after it premiered, Kameradschaft was chosen by film critics as one of the thirty most important films. When the film was released in 1932 the German press criticized its leftist radicalism, though its artistic quality was beyond rebuke, while the French government awarded Pabst the Order of the Legion of Honor.
In between Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft was Die Dreigroschenoper. The strangest thing about Pabst's filming of the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill opera was that he did it twice, in German and in French. The well-known story of the London underworld of beggars and thieves and the infamous Mack the Knife (Mackie Messer) featured Lotte Lenya in the German version in the role of Jenny Toler, which she had already made famous. The film relies less on realism than the other two in the social trilogy and employs a kind of Victorian romanticism and some scenes of Expressionism. A success upon its release, it is probably the second most viewed of Pabst's films.
On the day Adolf Hitler assumed power in Germany as chancellor, Pabst left for France. He remained there for eight years, with a brief interlude in the United States, making six films. One of these, Don Quichotte (Don Quixote), (1933) featured Russian basso Fyodor Chaliapin in the title role. In 1934 Pabst made A Modern Hero for Warner Brothers. The film flopped so badly that Pabst wanted to remove it from his filmography. Pabst was totally unfit for the Hollywood system and left for New York in 1935 to plan a film version of Charles Gounod's Faust, but this never materialized. He then returned to France.
The War Years and Afterward
In 1939, five months before the onset of World War II, Pabst returned to Austria, now under Nazi control. He stayed in Germany throughout the war and directed three wartime films. His widow later went public with a story about how the Pabst family was trapped by a series of circumstances in Austria when the war broke out. Others refute her assertions, and the truth regarding Pabst's motives for staying in Nazi Austria has been lost.
The first of three wartime, semipropagandistic films he directed was Komodianten (Comedians, 1941), for which he won the gold medal for best direction at the Venice Film Festival. In 1943 he directed Paracelsus, a story about the 16th-century metaphysician, and in 1944 he directed Der Fall Molander (The Case of Molander), filmed in German-controlled Prague but left unfinished when the Soviet army liberated the city.
In 1947 Pabst made Der Prozess (The Trial), and he again won the gold medal for direction at the Venice Film Festival. The film is a sharp indictment of anti-Semitism and in it Pabst vented his feelings toward Nazism. Pabst made seven more films in Germany, Austria, and Italy, including two more anti-Nazi films: Der Letze Akt (The Last Ten Days, 1955) and Es geschah am 20 Juli (It Happened on July 20, 1955). Considered Pabst's last masterpiece, Der Letze Akt depicts the final downfall of the Nazi regime. Es geschah am 20 Juli, about an attempt by German army officers to assassinate Hitler, suffers from being hurried. Pabst directed two films in 1956 and then retired.
Pabst was essentially an invalid for the last decade of his life. For years he had suffered from diabetes, and that was complicated when, in 1957, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He also suffered from cerebral arteriosclerosis. Pabst died in Vienna on May 29, 1967, from a liver infection.
Atwell, Lee, G.W. Pabst, Twayne Publishers, 1977.
Manvell, Roger and Heinrich Fraenkel, The German Cinema, Praeger Publishers, 1971.
Rentschler, Eric, ed., The Films of G.W. Pabst: An Extraterritorial Cinema, Rutgers University Press, 1990.
"Biography for Georg Wilhelm Pabst," http://us.imbd.com/Bio?Pabst,%20Georg%20Wilhelm (February 4, 2003).
"Films by G.W. Pabst," http://riverlightspictures.com/toe/pabst.html (February 4, 2003).
"Georg Wilhelm Pabst," All Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com/cg/avg.dll?p=avg&=B105326~C (February 4, 2003).