Georg Wilhelm Pabst was not only one of the great German directors of the silent film era, he (along with Fritz Lang) explored the expressive possibilities of sound in the early days of sound cinema. Criterion presents two of his earliest sound features, a pair that make perfect companion pieces: Westfront 1918 (Germany, 1930) and Kameradschaft (Germany, 1931).
He tackled World War I for his debut sound feature Westfront 1918, an anti-war drama about four soldiers in the trenches of the western front in the final months of fighting. In the tradition of the platoon drama, they represent different types—the young Student, the hearty Bavarian, the protective Lieutenant, and the married man Karl (the only one to be called by name)—and have bonded as friends under fire, but the film chronicles the way the war grinds them up and leaves them dead or broken. It’s adapted from the novel “Four Infantryman on the Western Front” by Ernst Johannsen and looks as if it could be Germany’s answer to the much more expensive and expansive Hollywood production All Quiet on the Western Front from Lewis Milestone, based on another novel by a German author. In fact they were in production at the same time and released just a month apart.
G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925), the Centerpiece screening on Saturday night, is a landmark drama of social commentary, a savage portrait of Germany after World War II, when rampant inflation and record unemployment plunged an entire class into poverty and widened the gulf between rich and poor into a veritable ocean. Decadence and desperation and degradation: this has it all, and with a drumbeat of social drama drawn in stark images and situations.
Greta Garbo takes her first role since being “discovered” in Gosta Berling’s Saga (1924) and is marvelous as the devoted daughter of a widower civil servant, basically taking care of her father and her little sister while he gambles their entire future on a stock market bet (a rigged game that we know is doomed to ruin them). Endlessly nurturing and sacrificing herself for others, we know where she’s headed when she ends up in hock to Frau Greifer (Valeska Gert), the neighborhood clothier with the secret club in the back and the procurer who turns desperate women into hookers for her male clients. Garbo is elegant and dignified without tipping into the Hollywood glamour that would soon define her (and fix her teeth), the honest working class innocent about to be savaged by the economic piranhas circling the stream.
The ostensible lead, however, is Asta Nielsen, the thirtysomething German superstar playing the teenage daughter of an impoverished and pious war veteran who accuses her of prostitution and essentially pushes her to it out of necessity. Dressed to the hilt by a smitten banker in fashions that make the Ziegfeld Follies look restrained, she goes through the movie like the walking dead, numb with shock at her station, which apparently her foreign fat cat client finds alluring, if confusing. Werner Krauss plays the butcher, who hordes his products to trade for sexual favors and wields the power of his position like a petty tyrant, and there’s an American aid worker, an aspiring young banker trying to follow in his market-manipulating boss’s footsteps, and a decadent young woman ready to trade her affections for the richest beau, plus there’s a couple of murders, a fiery suicide, a healthy dose of madness, and lots of lurid spectacle.
And yet watching the film is tough. Manny Farber’s designation of “elephant art” came to mind while working through the screening. This is long (over 2 ½ hours), important, heavy, full of social commentary and dreary lessons, and it goes on and on, teasing us with the threat of degradation of its struggling characters while showing damaging actions of the rich. It’s also overloaded with storylines, top-heavy with major characters (some of whom suddenly disappear for long periods, perhaps due to missing footage), confusing and complicated and at times clumsy in its storytelling.