(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Louise Brooks, in a delicately restrained performance, plays the naive daughter of a prosperous pharmacist. Shy and faunlike, the wide-eyed innocent is made pregnant by her father’s young assistant. To preserve family honor, she is sent to a repressive reform school from which she eventually escapes. Penniless and homeless, she is directed to a brothel where she becomes liberated and lives for the moment with physical abandon.
– From DVD Production Notes
When I saw Diary Of A Lost Girl it fascinated me for two reasons. First of all, it wasn’t the typical role for silent screen legend Louise Brooks, better known for her work in Pabst’s controversial Pandora’s Box. Secondly, the film is about a female character’s strength through resilience and integrity in a nearly impossible situation. Diary is an unforgiving expose on male privilege and hypocrisy in the vein of Tess Of The d’Ubervilles, trading in the tragic ending for a more searing indictment of its antagonists and society in general.
The film opens with Robert Henning (Josef Rovenský) dismissing his latest housekeeper, Elisabeth (Sybille Schmitz), although she entreats him to let her stay. It’s heavily implied that she is the latest in a long line of housekeepers he has “had his way with,” but this time she is pregnant and desperate for help. Henning refuses to do so. Shortly after she commits suicide and her body is returned to the pharmacy Henning runs with his assistant Meinert (a skin-crawling Fritz Rasp). No one is shocked or mourns for Elisabeth except for Henning’s daughter, Thymian (Brooks), who questions what has happened but receives no answer.
Another housekeeper moves in, a scheming young woman named Meta (Franiska Kinz) who is fully aware of Thymian’s father’s predilections and immediately begins to seduce him. In the meantime Thymian has her Confirmation and there is a celebration at the house in which she is given her titular diary and innocently (yet blindly) looks toward her promising future.
In spite of this she is still bothered by the loss of Elisabeth from the household. That night Meinert promises to explain the former housekeeper’s fate. Instead he rapes her, resulting in another pregnancy. Afterwards Meta confiscates Thymian’s diary to reveal who the father is and connives to have Thymian and her illegitimate child thrown out of the house.
She succeeds. The baby is given to a midwife living in a run-down tenement. Thymian is shipped off to a restrictive reform school. As for Meinert? Henning’s first impulse is to wring his neck, but stops himself, realizing he is no different from him. From there on out Henning proves to be the weakest, most hypocritical character in the film. He silently moves on, refusing to help his daughter and grandchild, continuing his affair with Meta and keeping Meinert in his employ as if nothing has happened. In short: everyone gets what they want except for Thymian, who suffers the brunt of it all.
What I enjoyed is that in spite of this Thymian is neither a tragic figure or driven by revenge and vindication. Her main concern is helping others and living the best she can. Ultimately it makes her trajectory much more interesting, even when it rests on luck or happenstance. It also makes her a fiercely feminist character for her time, wanting to control her life without compromising herself. One of her first stands is refusing to marry Meinert, which seals her fate and cuts her off from her family. To think of this possibility now seems ludicrous, but it was more than common less than a hundred years ago.
As Thymian adjusts to life at her reform school the issue of sexuality comes up again and again. The film suggests that the sexual repression of its time only yields more depravity and cruelty in unexpected places. The school is run by a sadistic couple (Valeska Gert and Andrews Engelmann) who brutalize and abuse the girls. The only respite Thymian experiences is through defiance or hints of sexual liberation, which is implied during her introduction to fellow “lost girl” Erika (Edith Meinhard).
From here Diary continues to follow the same intriguing suggestion: complete sexual liberation is a more honest and comfortable way of living. The only drawback is the outsider status it entails. This is true for Thymian and Erika, who escape from the school with the help of a family friend, young Count Osdorff (André Roanne), who has been cut off from his uncle’s fortune. They find shelter in an upscale brothel and begin new lives and relationships more fulfilling than what they’ve left behind. Although the situation is frowned upon by most of polite society, Thymian finds more happiness and acceptance than she did at home.
The problem is Thymian is never fully able to embrace this new life. She wants to work for a living and be self-sufficient. She is still haunted by the loss of her child. She also yearns for a reconciliation with her father, but once he discovers her fate he turns his back on her. It’s the most heartbreaking scene in the film.
Unfortunately the only way for her to move on is through the assistance or maneuverings of men. After all, even the headstrong Jane Eyre needed her uncle’s inheritance to attain her wishes. Thymian does as well, receiving an inheritance upon her father’s death and becoming engaged to the penniless young Count.
Nevertheless her conscience outweighs her own needs. She gives her inheritance to her half-sister upon learning Meinert is throwing Meta and her children out of the house (her indifference to him and a subsequent slap he receives is quite satisfying). She returns to the brothel with no money but feels vindicated since she has saved another girl from the streets. “I gave it to my little sister so she doesn’t meet my fate!” she explains to her friends and the Count, practically glowing with happiness.
Her joy is short-lived. The news is too much for the hopeful Count, who has long considered himself a failure. He leaps from a window to his death.
Thymian blames herself for this, but finds out she isn’t alone. She is approached by the Count’s uncle, the old Count Osdorff (Arnold Korff), who attends the funeral but watches from afar, feeling too guilty to participate.
He tells the mourning Thymian that he regrets abandoning his nephew. As recompense he adopts her as his niece, giving both of them the chance to heal. Although it’s late in the film, this scene marks a turning point in Thymian’s characterization. The death of her friend leaves her more subdued and determined, more of a woman than the girl she was at the beginning of the film.
Diary doesn’t immediately resolve itself there, as Thymian struggles with being recognized by previous customers and deciding how she can be useful in the world. She seizes the opportunity to become involved with the reform school she escaped, and upon realizing nothing has changed she does a complete 180, rising from her seat with contempt in her eyes.
It is in this moment that the story finds a satisfying end, with Thymian standing up for her own experiences and another in need, in this case the re-captured Erika. “I know all about this home and its ‘blessings’,” she snaps. “Your ignorance won’t help her.” As she protectively walks away with her friend the Count has the last word when he follows: “With a little more love, no one on this earth would ever be lost.”
Whether or not you believe it is true, the world of Diary echoes that statement. Whether love refers to sex, friendship or the bonds of family, it was the only safety net for Thymian. What is comforting to know is that the love and acceptance she was given was not lost on her. In turn she will offer the same to those who need it as much as she did.