GW Pabst doesn't appear to always get the same level of unfettered respect as compatriots, Lang and Murnau. His career wasn't as long and varied as the former and he maybe didn't have the cohesive style of the latter. It's been said that his success with Pandora's Box was more down to Louise Brooks' spellbinding performance but Brooksie always gave him great credit. Surely it would be churlish to say that he was similarly lucky to have Asta Nielsen and Greta Garbo making him look good in Joyless Street?
Any doubts about Pabst's technical ability are removed pretty swiftly when watching The Love of Jeanne Ney (Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney) made in 1927. The camera work is stunning and he cuts quickly moving the action and emotion along at a pace. There are hand-held shots, rapid close-ups - used to humorous effect upon the death of a parrot - and some unorthodox camera angles used, as in the excellent Abwege, to show the cross-eyed decadence of crowded bars. There are also some fascinating street scenes of Paris with the Gares du Nord and Lyon looking especially splendid in granite grey monotone.
The plot, I have to confess, is a tad confusing and there is maybe too much thrown in and one outrageously overblown character...but it works overall because of the pacing, the images and the naturalistic and powerful, performances Pabst gets out of his cast.
Jeanne Ney (Edith Jehanne) is the daughter of a French diplomat based in Russia during the post-revolutionary civil war. Her father is set up by the scheming Khalibiev (the rat like Fritz Rasp...never has an actor been more aptly entitled...) and in the confusion is shot by Jeanne's lover, Andreas Labov (the ridiculously handsome Uno Henning).
Jeanne flees to Paris, as does Khalibiev and Andreas, she takes a job with her private eye uncle Raymond (Adolph Edgar Licho) working as a secretary alongside his band of detectives. Raymond's blind daughter, Gabrielle (played with some style by Brigitte Helm) is somehow enticed into engagement by the scheming Khalibiev who threatens all their lives with his greed.
It's a complex storyline but with some great set pieces. Just why no one spots Khalibiev for the fraud he is isn't clear but he's a great villain who lusts after Jeanne and treats everyone just like the street walker he picks up and casually shoves into his hotel room. He murders Raymond for the diamond his agency has found and there's an horrific moment when Gabrielle enters the room after the deed is done. She seems to terrify Khalibiev - as if with her sightless eyes she's looking right through him - and lets out a primal scream of mourning when she finds her father's body.
Khalibiev tries to implicate Andreas but Jeanne pursues him in the misguided hope that he can clear his name. He tries to use this in the most dastardly way to seduce her on a train but Jeanne learns the truth just in time. The ending is an optimistic one and reminds me of the Hitchcock dénouement at the end of North by Northwest; well, they're both set on trains and take mere seconds to resolve the plot! Cleverly done though, we want a happy ending and there are so many lose ends, Pabst provides this crescendo of hope and lets us do the rest!
Pabst gets some superb performances out of his cast. Edith Jehanne is so natural as the lovely and in love Jeanne (quite why this film was re-titled Lusts of the Flesh for the UK is beyond me: it's all about love and not some 1950's C-movie). It's hard to see Garbo (who may have had the role had she not headed west) doing the job any better and Jehanne gives more testament to the depth of modernistic acting talent in 1920's Europe.
Uno Henning also makes an excellent leading man and is a little underused. He went on to star in Anthony Asquith's superb A Cottage on Dartmoor but the coming of sound meant he wasn't more successful outside of his native Sweden. Brigitte Helm plays Gabrielle with a frail, halting physicality... dancing the role as much as anything. To some she appears to overwork the blindness but she gives a remarkable, consistent and quite moving performance. A great actress with a considerable range: from robots to rich countessas, wandering wives and innocents like Gabrielle.
If anyone oversteps the naturalistic line in the sand it's Rasp with his pantomime expressiveness, evil moustache and weasel features. But there is surprising depth in his playing and moments when he clearly doubts himself, is in fear or, indeed, in love with Jeanne or in pity with Gabrielle. Every good tale needs a bad rat and he's the man Jeanne and Andreas must overcome to win the day.
All in all this is a thoroughly entertaining film that alongside Abwege, Joyless Street, Diary of a Lost Girl and Pandora's Box, shows Pabst deserves to be aligned with the very best of Weimar directors.
The Kino DVD is very good; a fine clear print enlivened by Timothy Brock's excellent score - the music being always so important to silent films. You can buy it here.
Supplementary: Brigitte Helm as method actress? There's a fascinating quote from Close Up magazine (one of the first to treat cinema as academically important), from an interview with Pabst in 1929:
Interviewer: "Her performance of the blind girl in Jeanne Ney is one of her most striking. I don’t feel Brigitte Helm is acting. I feel she is in a trance. That she has the power to throw herself into a trance and to move and speak and live a life quite outside her own experience."
G.W. Pabst: “Ah, you see. You have it. Do you know the scene when she walks with Jeanne Ney in the streets of Paris, she was almost killed. The actor driving the taxi was not a driver really, but had had to learn. He was not very sure of his steering. Brigitte Helm walked right in front of him. I had to run before the camera to save her. Do you know why? She was blind. She simply did not see it.”