G. W. Pabst Critical Essays

Introduction

G. W. Pabst 1885-1967

(Full name Georg Wilhelm Pabst) Austrian director and screenwriter.

Pabst is known for chronicling in his films the turbulence and neuroses of Europe during and after the two World Wars. His particular interest in exploring the psyches of the women of his time led to his legendary associations with actresses such as Brigitte Helm and Louise Brooks and set him apart from most of his contemporaries in cinema.

Biographical Information

Pabst was born in Raudnitz, Bohemia, in 1885. He received his education in engineering at a technical school and at the Academy of Decorative Arts, both in Vienna, from 1904 to 1906. Beginning in 1906, Pabst worked as an actor, traveling to the United States with a German language troupe in 1910. He returned to Europe and entered the military where he was captured and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp from 1914 to 1918. At the end of the war, he moved to Prague, where he directed a season of expressionist theater in 1919. The following year he joined Carl Froelich's film production company. He directed his first film, Der Schatz (The Treasure), in 1923. In 1928 he formed with Heinrich Mann, Erwin Piscator, and Karl Freund the Popular Association for Film Arts. A year later he traveled to London to study sound film techniques, and in 1933 he moved to Hollywood. Pabst returned to France in 1935. He planned to emigrate to the United States with his wife and son at the outbreak of World War II, but illness forced him to remain in Austria. During World War II Pabst was compelled to make films for the Nazi regime, for which he has been harshly criticized. Most commentators agree, however, that Pabst did not sympathize with Nazi ideology, and the tone and subject matter of much of his film canon supports this. After the war, in 1948, he was awarded the Best Director prize at the Venice Festival for Der Prozess (1947; The Trial) and in 1949 he formed Pabst-Kiba Filmproduktion. Pabst worked in Italy from 1950 to 1953. He died in Vienna in 1967.

Major Works

Pabst's films were deeply informed by both the socio-political events of his lifetime and his personal interest in Freudian psychoanalysis. Like other German directors, Pabst drifted to the cinema through acting and scripting. His first film, The Treasure, explores a search for hidden treasure and the passions it arouses. Expressionist in feeling and design, the film echoed the trend then in vogue in German films, but in Die freudlose Gasse (1925; The Joyless Street) Pabst brought clinical observation to the tragedy of his hungry postwar Europe. In directing the young Greta Garbo and the more experienced Asta Nielsen, Pabst was beginning his gallery of portraits of women, to whom he would add Brigitte Helm, Louise Brooks, and Henny Porten. In Geheimnisse einer Seele (1926; Secrets of a Soul) Pabst explored his interest in the subconscious, dealing with the Freudian subject of the dream and using all the potential virtues of the camera to illuminate the problems of his central character, played by Werner Krauss. Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney (1927; The Love of Jeanne Ney), based on a melodramatic story by Ilya Ehrenberg, reflected the upheavals and revolutionary ideas of the day. Two of Pabst's films have a special significance. Die Büchse der Pandora (1928; Pandora's Box) and Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (1929; Diary of a Lost Girl) featured the American actress Louise Brooks, in whom Pabst found an ideal interpreter for his analysis of feminine sensuality. Lesser-known films of Pabst's career include Gräfin Donelli (1924; Countess Donelli), which brought more credit to its star, Henny Porten, than to Pabst; Man spielt nicht mit der Liebe (1926; One Does Not Play with Love) featured Krauss and Lily Damita in a youth-and-age romance; and, Abwege (Begierde) (1928; Crisis [Desire]), a more congenial picture that took as its subject a sexually frustrated woman. Pabst's other noted films include Westfront 1918 (1930), an uncompromising anti-war movie; Die Dreigroschenoper (1931; The Threepenny Opera), an adaptation of the play by Bertolt Brecht, is a satire on the pretensions of capitalist society; Kameradschaft (1931; Comradeship), a moving plea for international cooperation; The Trial, which deals with Jewish pogroms in nineteenth-century Hungary; and Der Letzte Akt (1955; The Last Ten Days), about the last days of Adolph Hitler.

Critical Reception

Pabst's films are known to be both technologically advanced and narratively intimate. Pabst achieved this by using film techniques that blended both expressionistic and realistic elements in his films. Critics note the success of these two elements in such films as Joyless Street and Secrets of a Soul. As Jean Renoir said of him in 1963: “He knows how to create a strange world, whose elements are borrowed from daily life. Beyond this precious gift, he knows how, better than anyone else, to direct actors. His characters emerge like his own children, created from fragments of his own heart and mind.” Critic Linda Schulte-Sasse also notes Pabst's uniqueness among the Nazi genius films for “allowing a woman to forge historical progress” in Komödianten (1941). However, critic Eric Rentschler characterizes Pabst's films as “problematic” because they tend to involve vacillation and uncertainty.