The Joyless Street (1925)

FILM, Film Society
Previously at the Wellington Film Society: G.W. Pabst’s Weimar era landmark accompanied by the Joyless Orchestra.

Like the complete version of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, or Frank Borzage’s The River, Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s The Joyless Street (Die Freudlose Gasse) will never be seen in its entirety again. The Munich Film Museum’s reconstruction of the Weimar era landmark represents the most exhaustively researched version available to audiences at this moment in time, although is openly acknowledged by the restoration team as a subjective attempt to return the film to its elusive original form. Despite a print of Pabst’s cut not known to exist, and surviving versions falling well short of the unabridged running time (chopped down to size by censors), this reconstruction feels both intimate and expansive in its worldview. The Joyless Street is lurid and scorched with emotion, and yet on the basis of this version, has much bigger concerns in mind, with its blunt contrasts between decadence and degradation, lust and fury, and upward mobility and the lower depths, inflaming the melodrama. Like the New Zealand International Film Festival’s recent live cinema presentation of The Crowd, there is a socialist pulse to Padst’s portrayal of people on the breadline, one that quickens as film’s protagonists become overwhelmed by the wealth, inflation, and exploitation that surrounds their humble street in post-war Vienna.

Pabst also juxtaposes the fates of his two leading ladies, Asta Nielsen and Greta Garbo: the former a Danish silent era star in the twilight of her movie career; the latter an international screen icon in the making. Both actresses play downtrodden souls, but whereas Nielsen’s character turns to prostitution, and eventually murder, in her struggle to overcome poverty, Garbo’s character strives to maintain her dignity in the face of desperation. Pabst’s most famous film, Pandora’s Box (1929), shimmers with the presence of his greatest discovery as a director, Louise Brooks, and The Joyless Street is similarly remembered as a launch pad for Garbo’s ascent to stardom. Pabst, in both instances, is in awe of his women, and the performances are indeed the most interesting aspect of The Joyless Street: Garbo’s husky beauty has an unguarded, soulful quality that somehow dissipated as her career took off, while Nielsen is remarkable as a model of restraint. There are a number of striking close-ups of Nielsen throughout the film where her face, motionless apart from her eyes, seems to be suppressing and conveying emotion simultaneously. The flourishes—and they are exquisitely rare, with German Expressionism making way for the pursuit of realism—come from Pabst, who brings the film to an intense close with short bursts of slow motion, frenzied handheld camerawork, and violently tinted imagery.

Impressively, the Joyless Orchestra—a quintet made up of Wellington musicians Nell Thomas, Gerard Crewdson, Erika Grant, Chris Prosser, and Daniel Beban—have echoed Nielsen’s minimalism in their composition, which is largely pared back in service of the film’s sobriety, something I felt Johannes Contag’s score for the similarly downbeat The Crowd, though respectable, didn’t quite capture. The emphasis on foley where possible, and further on, the introduction of haunting vocals, made this a distinctly tonal treatment divorced from the driving rhythm of the usual centerpiece of silent accompaniment, the piano. If the group’s 2011 scoring of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Wildcat (1921) was boldly modernist, with a vast array of instruments employed (including a theremin, if I recall correctly), their accompaniment here balances experimentation with a classical aesthetic. Needless to say, the Wellington Film Society have spoilt us again with their latest live cinema event, which hopefully remains an annual fixture in years to come.

‘The Joyless Street’ also screens at Auckland Film Society on September 30. The Joyless Orchestra perform on September 21 at St Anne’s Hall & Church in Newtown as part of Old Hall Gigs.
Film Societies in sixteen centres run an annual programme of weekly/monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Full details at filmsocietywellington.net.nz, or for information about a film society closest to you, visit the NZ Federation of Film Societies.
Filed under: FILM, Film Society

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.