Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Images of Silent Streaming...

While perusing the newly added titles that stream on my Netflix account, I came across a film I had not seen before.  One from the silent film era.  I have always had an appreciation for the artistic expression of silent cinema.  I have seen several wonderful works over the years, but there is so much that I have not seen.

The title I found is "Diary of a Lost Girl" (1929), and it stars the stunning Louise Brooks.  I had heard of it many years ago, and had made a mental note to see it at that time.  Several years later, there it was on on my next insomnia riddled morning, I watched it.
Based on the 1905 book "Tagebuch einer Verlorenen" ("Diary of a Lost Girl"), by German authoress Margarete Bohme, it definitely deals with some racy and scandalous issues for the time.  Sexual seduction (it seemed more like rape to me), illegitimate children, prostitution, suicide...heavy subjects for a film in those days.

Directed by Austrian, George Wilhelm Pabst, 'Diary' is the second film Louise made with him.  ("Pandora's Box" is another big film for her, also directed by Pabst. It's next on my viewing list.)  Watching it sparked the desire in me to immerse myself in the watching of more silent films.  I mentioned "artistic expression" before.  The emoting that actors did in those days.  So much needed to be said with the face and the hands, aided with an occasional key card of short dialogue here and there.  Yes, much of it is overly exaggerated. The physical movements rife with emotion. Severe make-up and facial gymnastics of many of the performers.  The world of the silent film actor is a world I find fascinating.  From the first frames of 'Diary', I was pulled into that emotionally dysfunctional world.

**Spoiler Alert**:  I am about to get into details of the films' plot, so if you want to see the film and not know what happens...

("Thymian Henning"~ Louise Brooks)
("Meinert"~Fritz Rasp; "Thymian"~Louise Brooks)
Crowned with her famous Bob haircut, and lovely face, Louise Brooks is great in her role as the young (Brooks was 23 when she made the film) and innocent, Thymian Henning.  The drama begins right out of the gate.  On the day of her confirmation, Thymian is distressed when the housekeeper leaves.  Her father has gotten the housekeeper pregnant, and not long after her departure she (the housekeeper) commits suicide.  Thymian's father is a pharmacist.  His assistant Meinart (played by Fritz Rasp) offers her his shoulder, and promises to explain everything later that night.  Instead he 'seduces' her. (Sadly, sexual abuse was something that Louise experienced in her real life.  At the age of 9, she fell prey to a neighborhood predator. When she told her mother about it years later, her mother would say it must have been Louise's fault, as she must have led him on.)  Thymian gets pregnant, and has the baby.  She refuses to divulge who the father is, but her family reads her diary and finds out.  They tell her she should marry Meinart, but she refuses as she won't marry someone she doesn't love.  Her family gives the illegitimate child to a midwife, and ship Thymian off to a reformatory for wayward girls.  The place is run by a woman who is a real task master, along with her assistant (a man that immediately reminded me of Lurch on 'The Addams Family').

(Thymian collapses)
Cut to Thymian's friend, Count Osdorff.  Proving to not be much good at anything he tries to do, Osdorff is kicked out by his uncle.  Penniless, he goes to see Thymian in the reformatory.  She pleads with him to convince her father to take her back, but he informs her that Mr. Henning has married the new housekeeper, and it is impossible for her to go home.  Instead he helps her, and Erika (a friend she has made in the reformatory) to escape. Thymian's first destination is the midwife who has her child.  She learns that her baby has died.  Thymian wanders the streets, and finds Erika who has gotten a job working in a brothel.  Having no skills herself, Thymian becomes a prostitute.  

(Thymian gets a job, and joins the 'world's oldest profession')
One night in a nightclub, Thymian spots her father, Meinart, and her father's new wife, Meta.  Her father is shocked to learn of her current job, and is pulled from the nightclub by Meinart and Meta.  Three years later her father passes. Expecting that she will inherit a lot of money, she decides to start a new life. She agrees to marry Osdorff for the new identity.  At the lawyer's office, she learns that Meinart has purchased her interest in the pharmacy, and she is now a very rich woman.  Thymian then learns that Meinart is going to toss Meta and her children out on the street.  Not wanting her half-sister to experience anything like what she had gone through in life, Thymian gives the money to Meta.

Brooks looking up

Once Osdorff learns of her gift to Meta, he is devastated.  He was counting on the funds to build a new life, as well.  Osdorff commits suicide by throwing himself out a window.  In his grief, Osdorff's uncle does what he can to make amends to his nephew.  He vows to take care of Thymian, calling her his niece, Countess Osdorff.  Uncle introduces her to his cousin, and the cousin invites Thymian to be a director of a reformatory...the same one Thymian had been locked up in.  While visiting the reformatory, the ladies are presented with an "espeically difficult case", who turns out to be Erika.  Embracing her friend, Thymian denounces the reformatory, and storms out with Erika.  It is here that uncle Osdorff says the last line of the film.  "A little more love and no-one would be lost in this world."

As I watched Thymian go through one emotional tragedy after another, I was reminded of what a 'different' experience it is watching a silent film.  A drama. The bulk of what I have watched in the silent vein falls in the category of comedy.  Buster Keaton.  Harold Lloyd.  Both geniuses.  Lloyd actually put himself in physical peril for some of the stunts he executed.  The list of silent drama I have seen is much, much shorter.  Watching 'Diary' has moved me to change the length of that list.

(Thymian sees her father)
What about current generations, and generations to come?  Will the world of silent era films fall by the wayside?  Will a day come when silent films are but a non-existant memory?  I hope not, but television doesn't really show them as much anymore.  AMC (American Movie Classics) doesn't live up to it's name anymore.  TCM (Turner Classic Movies) is a bit better, but there aren't as many "oldies" on anymore.  Yes, I do realize that with the passage of time, what is classified as an old movie changes.  There are a lot more color classics these days.  When I was a kid, the hallmark of an old movie was that it was filmed in black and white.  It is my hope that the channels that call themselves "classic movie channels", make an effort to keep some silent films on the air.  Otherwise, future generations are going to lose out on some special stuff.

If you haven't seen "Diary of a Lost Girl", see it.  If you've got Netflix, it's streaming now.  If you don't know who Louise Brooks is, this is a great introduction to her film work.

If you do watch it, I hope it moves you to watch more silent film, too.

More to come...

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