Vienna in the biggest depression, directly after WW1. In a slum, Lila Leid, the wife of lawyer Leid is murdered, Egon, secretary of one of Leid's clients is arrested. He was with her, and had her necklace, because he needed some money for his own stock exchange deals. The same deal brings poverty to ex-government official Rumfort, his daughter Greta, who also has lost her job, tries to get some money to get food.
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Although much truncated in this hour and a bit American cut (re-released in 1935 to show curious audiences what their idol Garbo looked like a decade before) and feeling suspiciously short, Pabst’s outdated but fascinatingly told silent drama is still worthy of a patient viewers attention.
Based on the novel by Hugo Bettauer and set in post WW1 Vienna during spiralling inflation, the film details the life of young Greta (Garbo), who contemplates prostitution after her silly father (Furth) spends their life-savings on a dodgy share tip. Contrasted to this is poor girl Marie (Nielsen), whose lot it is to queue outside salacious butcher Krauss’ shop.
Originally much longer, this film is still shown as “Pabst’s Joyless Street”, despite a near complete version being strung together from disparate European prints in 1991. This version is woefully and regretfully incomplete, but there is still much to be admired.
There’s also a funny cameo from Gert as a saucy, shrew-faced sales girl who lovingly caresses her face with the fur coat she will sell Garbo.
But it’s all eyes on the greater Garbo. Caught in adoring close-up by Seeber, the pre-stardom actress elicits a soulful, world-weary intensity that is devastating (she was only 19 at the time).
Her conveyance of angst and desperation is hard to compare in silent cinema - even better and more skilled actresses of this period such as Gloria Swanson and Lillian Gish appear almost hysterical in comparison, as Garbo needs only the slightest expression to convey an ocean’s depth of feeling.
There are moments in the plot that might induce laughing as it gets quite improbable. Garbo becomes a cabaret girl, but if the thought of her playing the spoons or putting on a ventriloquists act is too distressing, she’s only going to dance, but makes the most unlikely flapper. Hanson, as the Yankee Lieutenant who saves her from despair, adds a sweetly happy ending that is difficult to swallow after the rest of Pabst’s grim pessimism.
Although Pabst would go on to make many more and better films (Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl) he made his mark here. His expressionist eye for dank and muggy design is extraordinary, as much for its subtlety as anything else (this is only 6 years after the grandly artificial Cabinet of Dr. Caligari).
The film neatly underlines the differences between the poor and the profligate rich and Pabst uses a mobile camera well, most notably when it roams along the butcher’s queue, like an interrogating spot-light.