Cinema From Kino: DIARY OF A LOST GIRL (1929)

Recently Kino Lorber released a new Blu-Ray of DIARY OF A LOST GIRL and since it happened to be during my month of silents, I figured this was a perfect opportunity to take my first foray into Louise Brooks.

Based on the novel Tagebuch einer Verlorenen written by Margarete Böhme and published in 1905, DIARY OF A LOST GIRL was the second pairing of Louise Brooks and her PANDORA’S BOX director Georg Wilhelm Pabst.

Thymian Henning (Louise Brooks) is the daughter of pharmacist Robert Henning (Josef Rovenský).  Unfortunately, Thymian’s father is a serial housekeeper impregnator.  Apparently dear old Dad likes nothing more than to take his housekeepers for all they are worth and then throw them out on the street when they become pregnant.  The latest victim of Dad’s loving ways is Elisabeth, who is begging Robert to reconsider when Thymian comes in.  She is all ready for her confirmation day party and is stunned when she discovers that Elisabeth is leaving.  While she questions her father as to why this is all happening, Elisabeth runs from the building. Thymian takes after her but is too late to catch her but is just in time to run into the creepy assistant pharmacist, Meinert (Fritz Rasp).  Meinert, like his boss, has some less than savory hobbies which include photographs of naked women.  He also has a weakness for virginal young girls and Thymian just so happens to fit the bill perfectly.  Meinert is interrupted in his lecherous musings by the arrival of the rest of the party guests, including the younger Count Osdorff (André Roanne) who gives Thymian a necklace to celebrate.

The party kicks off and everyone is having a fine time until there is a knock at the door.  Several man have come bearing a litter with a body.  Pulling back the blanket, Thymian reveals the face of Elisabeth who has thrown herself into the river and drowned.  She runs back inside to find her father cozying up to the newest housekeeper, Meta (Franziska Kinz).  Thymian faints and is put to bed by her aunt with a glass of wine and a plate of food.  Stunned, Thymian is restless and unable to sleep.  Coming down to the pharmacy she confides in Meinert that she feels so alone.  Meinert promises to stand by her and to tell her the truth of why Elisabeth killed herself.  Thymian swoons again and is carried off to her bed by Meinert, who then proceeds to take advantage of her.

Nine months later Thymian gives birth to a baby girl.  Robert and the rest of the family have no idea who the father is until Meta produces Thymian’s diary, which she had received as a confirmation gift.  Meinert gladly acknowledges that he is the baby’s father but has no desire to marry Thymian, especially since the pharmacy is in such terrible debt.  For her part, Thymian refuses to marry him as she does not love him.  Stymied by this, the family now must decide what is to be done with Thymian and her baby.  The child is given to a local midwife and Thymian is sent to a reform school.  This school for wayward girls is run by a tyrannical woman (Valeska Gert) and her nine foot tall, bald assistant (Andrews Engelmann).

Thymian is miserable at the reform school.  Her days are spent in strict routine complete with bizarre exercises, tasteless soup, and dull, gray uniforms.  She has only one friend, a girl named Erika (Edith Meinhard), and her diary to confide in.  She sends word to the young Count Osdorff, begging him to talk to her father on her behalf.  Unfortunately, her father has now married Meta and is expecting a child.  He has no interest in the daughter he sent away.  For his part, Count Osdorff has just been disowned by his uncle (the older Count Osdorff) and set adrift in the world without a penny, his uncle having been discouraged by his nephew’s lack of industry.

Osdorff the younger comes to visit Thymian and tells her that her father is not coming to help but that he has a plan.  He tells her to meet him outside that night and they will escape together.  Thymian manages to escape thanks in part to Erika and the other girls, who literally hold down the matron and her assistant while beating them in time to a gong, and she and Erika run off into the night with Osdorff.  Erika tells Thymian that she has just the place where they can go but Thymian wants to go and find her lost child.  Erika gives her the address of the brothel she works at and tells her to meet her there.  While Erika and Osdorff go off, Thymian makes her way back to the midwife she had left her child with so many months ago.

DIARY OF A LOST GIRL was filmed in the golden era of the Weimar Republic in Germany, in the final years before the Nazi party took power.  During the period of hyperinflation in the years before many German intellectuals had spoken out, condemning the extravagant capitalism they witnessed and demanding a cultural revolution.  As a result, German literature, film, music, and art entered into a period of creativity.  Cabaret and jazz become popular, young women dressed in a modern and “Americanized” fashion, and Josephine Baker was called an “erotic goddess”.  Into this world came Louise Brooks and DIARY OF A LOST GIRL.

Not everyone was happy with the cultural changes they saw, with many conservatives fearing that Germany was betraying her traditional values and becoming too American especially being influenced by American cinema and fashion.  While DIARY OF A LOST GIRL was originally written as a supposed autobiography of a former prostitute, the film takes a different bent and seems to be commenting on the culture of the time as well as the obvious sexual issues.  Erika and the women of the brothel are dressed in modern clothes, have modern furniture and decor, listen to modern music, and wear their hair like the flappers they see in America.  By contrast, the inhabitants of the reform school seem to be a call back to the days before the Republic.  All dressed the same with slicked back hair, no makeup, all moving in time to the beat of the drum as they go about their daily tasks and exercises.  But in their private moments the girls let loose with cigarettes and card games, finally able to literally let their hair down.

DIARY OF A LOST GIRL is a story about sex.  Let’s be honest about that.  It starts with Thymian’s father and his housekeeper problem.  Then there is Meinert and his photographs.  It is heavily implied that the inhabitants of the reformatory school have several sexual issues of their own, including the possibility of voyeurism and sadomasochism.  For me, when watching this film I was struck by how the many adults of the film react with fear and disgust at Thymian’s newly discovered sexuality.  I understand that at the time when the book was written and the film was made things were different, but are they really that different now?  Thymian is looked at as dirty and unclean after having been taken advantage of my Meinert, who is only given a sideways glance for his part in the proceedings.  Thymian’s father is all too happy to judge his daughter for her behavior but how is he any better?  Oddly enough, the only times that anyone is kind or friendly to Thymian it is when she is surrounded by other women.  The women in the reform school and the women in the brothel actually surround each other with support and kindness, rather than cutting each other down.  The so-called proper women, married women, women like Meta, are the ones who are often the cruelest to Thymian and the other lost girls.  Why is this?  Why is it acceptable for Meta to sleep with her boss simply because she marries him?  Why is it only acceptable for a woman to use her sexuality when it is in a way that benefits a man or the role society has created for her?  Why is it not the same for a man?  These are not new questions unfortunately but they are still important ones.

DIARY OF A LOST GIRL seems to be a film that is straddling two worlds but in unsure which one is the better of the two.  On the one side there is the world of the acceptable societal mores, the roles that women are meant to fill, the world of the reform school with its order and discipline, the world before the Weimar Republic.  On the other side there is the world of Erika, the brothel, the freedom of the young people, the world of jazz and cabaret, the modern world.  Which one is better?  At the end of the day it is the reactions of the people around her that shape Thymian’s world but it is her reactions to what happens around her that shape who she is and keep her from being truly lost.