Starring: Louise Brooks, Valeska Gert
Director: G.W. Pabst
Louse Brooks’ second collaboration with G.W. Pabst is a sustained attack on gender inequality when it comes to matters of sex. Brooks plays an innocent pharmacist’s daughter who finds herself on the slippery slope when she is gotten with child by her father’s lecherous assistant. Refusing to marry a man she doesn’t love, she’s packed off to a reformatory and from there winds up in a brothel – although ironically this turns out to be something of a haven of honesty and plain-dealing in a society rife with injustice and double standards.
As you would expect with Pabst, the film’s high-minded indignation is complicated by a rather more libidinous response to the lead character’s travails. The standout moments of the movie are the scenes in the reformatory, run by an extraordinary pair of sadistic ghouls – a leering bald thug and a mean-mouthed lesbian – who regiment the girls’ every movement and make them take part in vigorous forced aerobics. The nightmarish, 1984-like nature of the regime is emphasised by the fact that the inmates dress in militaristic garb and have their hair slicked back – an androgynous get-up which actually serves only to make Brooks more delectable. By contrast, the brothel is a place where people are accepted for the mixed bags they are. Witness Dr Vitalis, an avuncular character who’s torn between wanting to save the girls from prostitution and his eagerness to make the most of their personal services.
Throughout, Brooks displays that combination of passivity and poise that has made her such an object of enduring interest to filmgoers, a cool, Buster Keatonish quality in the face of life’s ups and downs – responding to good things with a wry, lopsided smile, and to the news that she’s going to have to earn her living on her back with a brief look of sadness and resignation. It’s a poise that Pabst clearly adores, while also feeling an impulse to shake it up, as in the comical scene where, putting into practise what she learned at the reformatory, she dresses up in a leotard and tries to interest a male customer in a course of energetic aerobic exercises.
This 2K transfer of the 1997 restoration of the film is on the whole very nice, with plenty of detail and vibrant contrast, although inevitably there are some scratches and scrapes and a slight dropping-off in clarity in some of the restored cuts (the film was heavily censored upon its initial release). For some reason the picture always seems crisper and brighter whenever Brooks is on screen – her trademark bob looks very shiny and silky throughout, and the black velvet of her funeral dress towards the end comes up with particular fidelity. In addition to the main feature, you get an informative 11-minute video essay which looks at Books’ and Pabst’s careers and a boolet stuffed with writings, most notably a memoir of various meetings with Pabst by famed German film critic Lotte H. Eisner.