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Georg Wilhelm Pabst
100.000.000 peasants - illiterate, poor, hungry. There comes a day when one woman decides that she can live old life no longer. Using ways of new Soviet state and industrial progress she changes life and labor of her village.
Sergei M. Eisenstein
Pabst is on the precipice here so it's as good an introduction as any. His next two would be among the great works of the era. At the same time I don't recommend that you seek him out on your first rounds of cinema, silent or otherwise. He's not lyrically emotive like Murnau, nor used to build on a grand scale like Lang. So it might seem like not much is going on after all and that he simply made melodramas with some flourish around women who suffer. Not quite so.
He was one of the most discerning eyes of his time, one of the most intuitively equipped in knowing how to sculpt - not just a story, adorned with visuals but - currents of air that come from a character's soul and carry the creation of that story as it fills the room. His work is full of corridors that spontaneously open places in the imagining. Were we to look for the continuation of his cinema, we would have to look for it in the films of someone like Resnais and even Antonioni.
Look what he does here. On the surface this is the simplest stuff, melodrama about a young woman stifled by thankless marriage. She would like them to go out with friends that night but he's too busy with work and just looks like a very morbid man. A friend asks, "why do you allow yourself to be imprisoned?".
Quick note before proceeding. A few years before, Pabst had made a film - Joyless Street - that captured the despondency of the Weimar era of black markets and hyperinflation, neorealist impulse before the language existed. Here he's unerringly modern, meaning about the life of private vexations that begin after more simple needs have been sated, the life of the dissatisfied mind that we find in Antonioni's time. The film takes place inside a spacious house, a fancy club.
Okay now to see what he does. We have the usual tribulations and ironies of melodrama throughout - she defies him, regrets it, defies again on until the lovingly ironic conclusion where they reconcile outside the court where moments earlier they had just finished divorcing.
But the real mastery - what sets him apart - lies in how the situations are stirred from the soul they stir and animate.
Feeling stifled in her marriage takes shape as a romantic escape with an ex boyfriend painter; he readily takes her back and they plot to leave for Vienna the same night. But her husband, in this oppressive perception of him, foils the plan, possibly paying off the man, and waits at the station to escort her back home to the melodrama.
That very same night she rebels and goes out to a club; it's a bit of a mystery how this happens, an acquaintance visits the house looking for her husband and she walks out the door with him. The point is that everything is presented in a fluid way, with scant intertitles and explanations and long stretches of the camera. You can see Pabst looking for a cinema that would be Antonioni's or even Cassavetes', something discovered in the wandering of how things overlap.
Inside the club, in this urge for enjoying life she laughs and drinks with people she barely knows. There's a long visual stretch of this with complex flow. A flirty banker hits on her friend, no doubt expecting sex, and moments later he's seen disappearing in a backroom with a mysterious girl he just handed money to. Asking about the girl, she's told that she's someone's widow. In a breathtaking touch, she finds the ex-boyfriend in the same club; irate at seeing him she begins dancing with strangers. There's no exchange between them, no "scene", only the furious glimpse of him perhaps as her mind conjures the resentment.
Back home while all of this plays out, the husband is alone in a room, possibly inhabiting what he imagines. More portents: she rushes back home to find him unconscious, as if stricken by what he has seen. Immediately after they fight and she falls unconscious, but now we see that he carries her to the bed and motions to someone who is vacuuming outside to be quiet. The point, lost on us because we began with the story at a certain point, coloring everything through her dissatisfaction, is that he's not just a lecherous villain, probably never was.
Pabst being on the precipice means that I get perhaps half of a great film but the first part that culminates here is fascinating. It's these notions, interleavened dreams of anxiety, that Pabst would extend in his two most famous works with Louise Brooks. See this, if only to prepare you for Diary of a Lost Girl.
The realization he permits is that all we see is filtered by perceptions that carry us into stories whose shape they take, that reality is fluid in this way, the constant playground of impulse.
Sure enough, Murnau gave rise to some marvelous cinema, others from the era. But for me the progenitor of all those who are truly worth knowing, one of them, is this man here.
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