Wheels of History

Film and history have seldom been more intertwined than in the career of G.W. Pabst, the protean, once-renowned Austrian-born director who is the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

Starting with the 1923 expressionist fable The Treasure, Pabst made a series of socially conscious and sexually frank silent movies. He helped discover Greta Garbo, cast—along with the great Asta Nielsen—in The Joyless Street, his 1925 domestic epic of post-World War I disorder. He virtually invented Louise Brooks, the minor Hollywood player whom he made the star of Pandora's Box (1928) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). A brilliant director of actresses, Pabst obtained Leni Riefenstahl's most nuanced, least narcissistic performance in the alpine spectacular The White Hell of Pitz-Palu (1929). A cultivated intellectual, he fiddled with Freud (Secrets of a Soul, 1925) and Brecht (The Threepenny Opera, 1931) and was generally considered to be a world-class filmmaker.

While The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), adapted from a novel by Ilya Ehrenberg, is among the culminating works of silent cinema—a grand attempt to synthesize Soviet montage, Hollywood action-melodrama, and German mise-en-scène—Pabst made a brilliant adjustment to sound. His 1930 Westfront 1918 is an unknown masterpiece—at least as audio-innovative as Fritz Lang's M in its existential battle sequences, thudding sense of the material world, and close-to-overlapping dialogue. The weird sauciness of Pabst's French-language The Threepenny Opera, far superior to his German version, is matched only by the bizarrely Mittel-European exoticism of Mistress of Atlantis ("eine Fata Morgana" from 1932), in which the Bedouin denizens of a Sahara settlement sit around listening to Offenbach. The elaborate Don Quixote (1933), with Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin singing in phonetic English, is an ambitious attempt to develop a specifically filmic musical form.

From the flux of daily life: Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola in The Bicycle Thief
Kino
From the flux of daily life: Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola in The Bicycle Thief

Details

The Bicycle Thief
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Written by Cesare Zavattini
A Kino International release
At Film Forum
October 2-15

G.W. Pabst
At the Museum of Modern Art
October 5-31

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Once Hitler came to power, Pabst went into exile—first in Hollywood, then in Paris—before haplessly returning to the Reich in 1939 to rekindle his German career. Officially denazified (but aesthetically discredited) after the war, he made his last films amid the West German economic miracle. Taken as a whole, Pabst's oeuvre is at once specifically German and wildly deterritorialized. A Modern Hero (1934) is a Warner Bros. success story told with startling Teutonic harshness, while Shanghai Drama (1938) is the exile film to end all exile films, made on a Paris soundstage with a cast and crew of Austrians, Indochinese, and White Russians. This reverse Casablanca is the sort of minor masterpiece auteurists cherish, haunting confession in the guise of a despised genre work.

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