Life’s cruel deck is stacked against poor Thymian Henning from the off. After finding her father’s housekeeper – and mistress – has committed suicide, Thymian is herself taken advantage of by a pharmacy clerk, subsequently victim-shamed according to the conventional moral norms of the day, and cast out from her family to join a convent for disorderly young girls. Dark stuff then, though Louise Brooks, in her final pairing with director G.W. Pabst, infuses the character of Thymian with a will to persist; a vitality amidst the darkness. In her first appearance, Brooks appears framed in an interior archway, clad in a radiant white that bursts apart the film’s heretofore sundry shades of grey. She may a ‘lost girl’, but she’s the film’s guiding light.
Pabst navigates the reform school with simple tracking shots along ordered objects like identical bedheads, or figures spooning porridge into their mouths, each of these flourishes a subtle indictment at rigid strictures that hamper both consideration of the human spirit and liberating artistic potential. Select instances of camera movement are matched by efficiency of montage, such as when the sadistic headmistress of the reform school has the girls work out to the bang of her gong, therefore commanding the film’s editing rhythm and satiating her altogether suspect desires. The material here works to her ends.
However, to focus on the headmistress is to fatally sidestep the clear patriarchy at play in all its various guises. The sins of man here range, perhaps intentionally, from the subtle to the outwardly cruel. There’s the aforementioned opportunistic clerk, played like a snake by Fritz Rasp. There’s the headmistress’ sadistic bald assistant, who thrives on the girls’ oppression – and suffers under their inevitable revolt. Then there’s Doctor Vitalis, visitor at the brothel where Thymian is eventually forced to find work, said to ‘always want to save us, but in the end he joins us’, emblematic of a certain kind of solidarity posturing that swiftly gives way in the heat of the moment. And last but not least, there’s dear old Count Osdorff (Andre Roanne), Thymian’s young male acquaintance, unemployed as well, therefore possessing no qualms in pocketing one or two of his friend’s sex trade-earnings for himself. In fact, although an absolute prerequisite for survival, money is no apparent object to Thymian, and when she drops a note it’s almost always somebody else’s hand that picks it up.
In arguably the film’s finest and most defining scene, Thymian is spotted by her father in a gentleman’s club, thirty years on from the initial separation forced by his hand. Pabst’s continual framing of Thymian’s face, dead-centre in close-up, eyes appealing to the viewer, has led to this crucial moment. Thymian’s father watches on helplessly as a gaggle of grotesque grown men close in on his daughter, fawning and chomping at the bit to be in her presence; in seeing this, her father recognises his own transgressions, and in situating both him and Thymian central to the chaotic figures surrounding them in the composition, Pabst has honed in on that cutting moment of revelation, the identification of one’s self in another’s body. The fourth wall gaze implicates us to that effect. Events may sign off on a simplistic plea for peace – “A little more love and no one would be lost in this world” – but the larger takeaway is a rallying call for considered empathy as key to resolving our differences. The medium of cinema, as both a window and mirror, is unique in working toward these aims.
Eureka’s Masters of Cinema dual-format restoration features a piano score by Javier Perez de Aspeitia, and comes complete with a brand new video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns, as well as 40-page booklet with writing from Louise Brooks, Lotte Eisner, Louelle Interim, Craig Keller and R. Dixon Smith.