Splintered selves: Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

Akis Lalos
5 min readNov 2, 2020


You must have Pabst in your life at some point. Time it well, seek out a few silents beforehand. It was an exciting era for movies anyway, you’re going to have a lot of fun. Context will be valuable. That is because Pabst does not set out to impress on the scope of Lang or Murnau, who impress easily, so you may be fooled that he’s pretty ordinary. Not so. I rate him as the top German filmmaker of the time; the man had a truly subtle, humane touch that cut deep.

It may seem as pretty ordinary, this one. It’s melodrama about a hapless young girl who is neglected and abused: unwanted pregnancy, forced marriage, reformatory, prostitution. It is a journey of maturity that takes her through many worlds, most of them depressing. DW Griffith would have done this in somber, sanctimonious tones. Chaplin could do it frivolously, with a bit of kindly fate in the machine of sorrow. Pabst did it another way, and it’s his way that most likely has influenced our contemporary understanding of cinematic melodrama as something quite pure and sophisticated.

That sophistication is seeking ways to deliver both the redemptive story and many ways, different paths to reason and emotion, some of them shrouded in dream, and seems to have carried on from here to Sirk to elsewhere and Lynch.

I want to devote this comment to all these items of, let’s say, peripheral narrative vision. You can read up a description of the story in the other comments.

There’s Louise Brooks for one, exquisite beauty even among movie queens of the silent era. But Pabst was sensitive; unlike Sternberg in Blue Angel, he doesn’t frame her for sex, trusting the male gaze to work the usual way anyway. Brooks both here and in Pandora’s Box is a spirited, swanlike creature.

There are four worlds that she travels through, possibly more. Each one is revealed by the treatment of sex. The first is the parental nest, sex is covert yet (the tryst with the maid) and she is a sheltered child, naive and innocent of finer implications around her. The film begins portentously with a suicide and a man promising truth of the story. In a roundabout way he does, by exploiting sexual vulnerability.

The second world is at the reformatory: it is a simplistic world with stock villains (matron — guard) where expressions of sexuality are forbidden. Here others administer decisions and she only has to obey the story. It is very much a stepdown into childhood, but in a way that is painfully clear to her (in the parent’s nest, she had illusions of freedom). A revolt is staged and she escapes.

What she doesn’t know, is that she escapes to a high-class brothel. We find out as she does, when an envelope full of money arrives the morning after a night of drinking, merrymaking and sex. But — as sex enters the picture — so this is a world now where people are ambiguous figures, not always villains. Here a creep looking for sex is repudiated, only for the kind protector to assume his place: this man has noble aspirations to save the girls, but he’d much rather have a good time. He’s a bit of a hypocrite, but it would be a puritanical stretch to think him bad. Here she learns to endure and persist.

Now for the best part. The narrative is on the top level in the form of excerpts from a diary. But, you will note steadily the introduction of more and more subtle, visual dislocations from the ordinary.

That male gaze mysteriously lulls her to sleep both times she has sex. Both times it’s against her will, both times signify a turn in the gear of the world. The second time is accompanied by the bedroom door inexplicably opening ajar by its own self, and then the lover and a sedated Louise in his arms waltz into frame. It’s a heady, seductive shot.

It’s obvious what Pabst is getting at — she succumbs to the role expected of her — but in doing so, succeeds in demanding from us a different set of reasoning tools for the rest of the film. There are several more shots of her asleep in the hands of men, as though dreaming her whole ordeal. Dance is a main thread, and wrapped around the recurring notion of deciding the depth of your performance.

That different set of tools is, at the same time as the world around her changes, and demands each time a different response, getting to note semiconscious spillovers inside of her.

This aspect of the work is amazing. Look how, in both the reformatory and brothel, she is part of a chorus of girls, usually framed with two or more girls hovering beside her, and it’s that chorus instead of just herself that is experiencing the story, as though part of that fragile self has splintered by the trauma, and each splintered self has taken mirrored shape around her to shoulder part of the pain. (compare to the brothel scenes from Inland Empire)

The fourth world is having learned to cope, and that allows her to return to the early stages of the story, starting with another scene of dance and frolicking by the beach, and eventually save one of those splintered selves from the same fate.

Something to meditate upon.



Akis Lalos

writer on structured narrative and the changing world