(in German Die Freudlose Gasse)
Before I discuss the two films by GW Pabst let me put the film in proper context by briefly touching upon hyperinflation, that existed in Weimar Republic.
Germany had to inflate its currency to pay the war reparations required under the Treaty of Versailles, but this didn’t cause hyperinflation. The German currency was relatively stable at about 60 Marks per US Dollar during the first half of 1921. But the “London ultimatum” in May 1921 demanded reparations in gold to be paid in annual installments of 2,000,000,000 gold marks plus 26 percent of the value of Germany’s exports. The first payment was paid when due in August 1921. That was the beginning of an increasingly rapid devaluation of the Mark which fell to less than one third of a cent by November 1921 (approx. 330 Marks per US Dollar). The total reparations demanded was 132,000,000,000 gold marks which was far more than the total German gold or foreign exchange. An attempt was made by Germany to buy foreign exchange, but that was paid in treasury bills and commercial debts for Marks, which only increased the speed of devaluation.
During the first half of 1922 the mark stabilized at about 320 Marks per Dollar accompanied by international reparations conferences including one in June 1922 organized by U.S. investment banker J. P. Morgan, Jr. When these meetings produced no workable solution, the inflation changed to hyperinflation and the Mark fell to 8000 Marks per Dollar by December 1922.
Although reparations accounted for about one third of the German deficit from 1920 to 1923, the government found reparations a convenient scapegoat. Other scapegoats included bankers and speculators (particularly foreign), both of which groups had, in fact, exacerbated the hyperinflation through the normal course of their profit-seeking. The inflation reached its peak by November 1923, but ended when a new currency (the Rentenmark) was introduced.
A medal commemorating Germany’s 1923 hyperinflation. The engraving reads: “On 1st November 1923 1 pound of bread cost 3 billion, 1 pound of meat: 36 billions, 1 glass of beer: 4 billion.”(wikipedia)
“It’s strange how you can get booze on credit but not bread.”This quote is from Pandora’s Box(1929), which tersely encapsulates Germany’s Weimar Republic. The Joyless Street is also set during this tumultuous post-war Vienna. The city as Pabst saw was ‘a head that has no torso’. Plagued with skyrocketing inflation, the Austrian metropolis becomes the domain of every scurrilous form of profiteering. In such maledictory circumstances profiteers prosper.
In 1921 in the poverty-stricken part of town called Melchiorgasse in Austria inhabited by impoverished gentry and blue-collar workers, there are only two wealthy people: the butcher Josef Geiringer and his wife. Mrs. Greifer (literally her name means grasping) runs a fashion boutique and a nightclub patronized by the wealthier class of Vienna. Annexed to the nightclub is „Merkl“ hotel, a by-the-hour establishment, in which the women of the nightclub prostitute themselves in order to pay back their debts to Frau Greifer. The supporting characters include a poverty-stricken professor, his beleaguered daughter, an idealistic American Red Cross worker and a slinky harlot. Each character is photographed in a symbolic manner underlining his or her basic personality: the domineering butcher is photographed from a low angle, emphasizing his corrupt power, while the professor is lensed in long shot, highlighting the bareness of his apartment-and by extension, his life’.(Hal Erickson-allmovieguide.com)
Where despair rules can brothels be far behind? Every pfenning that a client put out was like thirty pieces of silver betraying some hopeless girl sunk low in the economic mire.
The Joyless Street was the third film of Georg Wilhelm Pabst. The film is notable in the history of silent era film for a number of reasons. It made Greta Garbo an international star. Soon after this film was completed, Garbo was brought to the shores of the USA to star in films for MGM in Hollywood. It is also a film that marked the fame of Pabst as a creditable film-maker.
The film was directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and it is one of many films concerning the plight of women in German society. The other films are Geheimnisse einer Seele (1926) with Lili Damita, The Loves of Jeanne Ney (1927) with Brigitte Helm, Pandora’s Box (1929), and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), the last two starring American actress Louise Brooks.
The Joyless Street tells the story of two women whose lives take different routes during the period of hyper-inflation in immediate post-war Vienna. One is the poverty stricken Marie (played by Asta Nielsen), who stumbles into prostitution while attempting to raise money for the man she loves. The other is Greta, the daughter of a struggling middle class bureaucrat, who resists the temptation of the easy money that prostitution offers.
At the end of the film, a sick and impoverished Else kills the butcher because he won’t give her any meat and the poor in the neighborhood, hearing the sounds from the nightclub, begin a stone-throwing revolt against the rich. In the ruckus, the building goes up in flames, killing a pair of beggars. In the end, only Grete seems to have any hope of someday rising out Melchiorgasse, because of her relationship with an American Red Cross officer.
Nielsen and Garbo
Asta Nielsen portrays Marie as a slightly “lost”, faded beauty, face caked with too much make-up and in love with the much younger Egon. Not fully comprehending what is happening to her, she drifts into prostitution to raise money for the man who shows no interest in her.
The role of Marie is played by the 35-year-old Nielsen was one of Scandinavia and Germany’s premier actresses and this was one of her last films while the other actress was the 20-year-old Garbo who had just made Stiller’s The Atonement of Gösta Berling (1924) and was on the brink of stardom. In rather fortuitous circumstances Pabst found Garbo and the director in Berlin and signed her up for the film.
Garbo plays the daughter of a bureaucrat who loses every penny of his pension on the stock market. The loss forces them, at first, to take in borders. Their first tenant is the son of a wealthy American in Germany to study. The elder of the two daughters and the young man fall in love at once. The affair is doomed, however, because the girl, seeing the harm their lessened social status causes the father and her sister, is forced into becoming a chanteuse in a brothel. She is saved from the fate of many of the other girls at the last minute.
Pabst drew a very different performance from Garbo to the one he garnered from Nielsen. Greta, the character, although placed in much the same situation as Marie – unable to obtain meat during a food shortage, in dire need of money, tempted by prostitution – is a younger, more privileged woman. Garbo’s performance, in contrast to Nielsen’s, imbues her character with great vitality… When the American officer agrees to rent a room so that the family will be capable of paying its living expenses, the pores of her body seem to pulsate with a contagious exhilaration. As Louise Brooks, another actress who was touched by Pabst’s genius, said of Garbo, “she gave him the purest performance of her career.”(quoted from by Michael Koller)
The war was over, defeat its German portion. The social changes were about to push the stolid mercantile class known as Kleinburger ever lower. Self-pity of this class one might see in films like The Last Laugh, New Year’s Eve and The Street. “Die Strasse” of brothels has been a favored milieu for German film makers. Pabst was ‘ the humanitarian, and not the “psychologist,” in the “freudlose GassGasse” (the street without Freud). His sensitiveness placed this picture of the stricken above…the more typical German directors: he was not moralistic. His Viennese origin substituted delicacy for delikatessen; he did not compound the pathos on the recipe of “Mehr! Mehr !“( “Pabst and the Social Film,” by Harry Potamkin, originally appeared in Hound and Horn in 1933)
The present film has a ring of truth and brilliance of a genius in the making all of which owe to his own experiences in post-war Vienna. It helped him to provide a vivid document in charting the moral and economic collapse of a recently great society. Pendant upon this are films like Pandora’s Box and The Blue Angel(1930). The cabaret in which Lola Lola had men panting for more, in this film has a brothel instead. The madam also controls the adjoining night-club and clothes shop. Who keeps her in business? The needy and the curious obviously. Among the latter are the military officials of the American Relief Fund, as well as a sleazy foreign investor who visit the night-club to experience what Viennese women are ‘really’ like. The economic collapse has taken the kid gloves off from the wealthy and they are shown as grasping as ever. They feed on those less fortunate than themselves. If the madam should be as grasping it comes as no surprise. For every prospering madam there shall be those who have given up the will to succeed. Marie is one such. Her love for Egon merely is one way street and he is more interested in two other women; an older one who supplies him with the means to raise money and the younger Regina, the woman he truly loves, who wants it. Regina tells her suitor, Egon, that only money can make her happy. And she is happy for him to prostitute himself to get money for her. Love as you can see still makes the world go round even in such desperate times.
When completed the film was ten thousand feet in length…. France accepted the film, deleting two thousand feet and every shot of the ‘street’ itself. Vienna extracted all sequences in which Werner Krauss appeared as the butcher. Russia turned the American Lieutenant into a doctor and made the butcher the murderer instead of the girl.
(Ack:allmovieguide,senses of cinema-Michael Koller, June 2004)
With: Asta Nielsen, Werner Krauss, Jaro Furth, Einak Hanson, and Veleska. Gert.
Notes: Script by Willy Haas from a book by Hugo Bettauer. Cinematography by Guido Seeber and Robert Lach.
Original running time: 145 mins
(Original length: 12,264 ft.) Premiered 18 May 1925 in Berlin, Germany. / Standard 35mm spherical 1.37:1 format. / Asta Nielsen’s character was edited out of early USA release prints. Rereleased in 1937 with synchronized music and sound effects as The Street of Sorrow. The film was restored by the Munich Filmmuseum in 1999.
Survival Status: Print exists in the Munich Filmmuseum film archive; also in private film collections [16mm reduction positive].
* The name “Frau Greifer” literally means “Mrs. Grabber”, a metaphor for the stranglehold that poverty and prostitution have on women who fall into that way of life.
* The actress playing Elsa is Hertha von Walther (1903-1987), who looks very much like Marlene Dietrich, giving rise to the false rumor that Dietrich has a bit part in this film.
Les Bas-Fonds (1936, Jean Renoir)
The Lower Depths (1957, Akira Kurosawa)
Na Dne (1952, Andrey Frolov)
Austeria (1983, Jerzy Kawalerowicz)
Movies with the Same Personnel
Ninotchka (1939, Ernst Lubitsch)
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929, G.W. Pabst)
Geheimnisse einer Seele (1925, G.W. Pabst)
Westfront 1918 (1930, G.W. Pabst)
Paracelsus (1943, G.W. Pabst)
Romance (1930, Clarence Brown)
Inspiration (1931, Clarence Brown)
Don Quixote (1933, G.W. Pabst)
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