Pabst, Georg Wilhelm (1885–1967)

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Austrian film director.

Georg Wilhelm Pabst began his career in theater in Zurich and Germany in 1905, and from 1910 to 1914 he worked as an actor in New York. Returning to Europe at the outbreak of the First World War, he was interned in Brest, France, for the duration of the conflict. After the Armistice, he directed plays in Prague before beginning his film career in Vienna.


His first effort as a director was Der Schatz (1923; The Treasure), shot in a style not unlike the then-popular expressionism. Pabst gained renown with Die Freudlose Gasse (1925; The Joyless Street), with Werner Krauss; Asta Nielsen, a Danish actress and former star of German cinema; and a young newcomer named Greta Garbo. To describe the disastrous postwar social and economic conditions in Austria and Germany, Pabst emphasized the harsh impoverishment of middle-class life, comparing it with the life of the nouveaux riches, speculators, and black marketeers. The movie is based on the parallel lives and antagonisms of characters who belong to distinct social classes. As in some other contemporary productions, the street became a symbolic scenographic space, a place of encounter as well as separation and discrimination. The success of Die Freudlose Gasse brought Pabst international fame.

In revolt against the bourgeois order, Pabst approached sexuality with a Freudian perspective in Loulou (1929) released in the United States as Pandora's Box, an adaptation of two plays by the German dramatist Frank Wedekind (1864–1918). The American actress Louise Brooks plays a dancer in the title role. With her pageboy haircut and slender sensuality, she would come to embody feminine subversion and the archetype of the modern, liberated woman. With her intelligence and sexuality, free from conformist values, Loulou seeks to destroy masculine integrity and to defeat the social and moral constraints of the bourgeoisie. In a decadent and corrupt world, her only defense is her sublime and innocent beauty, to be used against men who wish to possess her. At a time when such behavior was considered scandalous and perverse, the film provoked the critics and received more virulent notices than had the play, and it was censored in parts and mutilated by cuts.

With the beginning of the sound era, Pabst, who was one of the founders of the Volksverband für Filmkunst (Popular Association for the Art Film) propounded his pacifism and internationalist ideas in two major films, Westfront 1918 (1930) and Kameradschaft (1931; Comradeship), each released in a single, bilingual version, rare at a time when most films were released in multiple-language versions. Both films exposed the failings of capitalism, which like war has no victim other than the people. An adaptation of a short story written by Ernst Johannsen, Westfront tells the story of a group of German soldiers at the front. It was totally different from previous films with the same subject because it denounced the absurdity of the war—the ravages of which had been as much evident behind the lines as at the front—and because it treated its theme in an extremely realistic style. Pabst conveys his messages less through dialogue than through sophisticated visual effects such as the oppressive atmosphere created by long shots and lighting that accentuates contrasts. Censored under pressure from the Nazi Party, the movie was well received in France, especially by veterans, where it improved the image of Germany, much hated after the war.

The second film, Kameradschaft, was inspired by the 1906 mining catastrophe in Courriéres, during which German miners helped to rescue their French comrades. Partly shot in 1920 around the coal mines of the Sarre, the movie glorifies working-class solidarity, praises Franco-German reconciliation, and exalts the idea of peace with restrained appeal to the memories of wartime (in one powerful scene, a dying miner thinks he is under gas attack in the trenches). It resembles an objective documentary, with its spare direction and the absence of aesthetic devices or music. The mine's passageways, meticulously reproduced in a studio in Berlin by Erno Metzner, seem quite as real as the exteriors that were shot on location. The same striving for realism caused Pabst to choose relatively unknown German and French actors who speak in their own language. Émile Vuillermoz, a critic for Le Temps, was deeply impressed by the movie and wrote: "The creation of this work marks an important date in the history of the Western European cinema." Indeed, Pabst was for his time a most politically engaged director.


Although his social and political views and ideology won him the sobriquet "Pabst the Red," he made some questionable dramatic and aesthetic compromises in some of his films. The best example is his 1931 adaptation of Die 3groschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). Although he collaborated on the script, Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) thought that the film did not respect his play's sharp edge of social criticism. Believing that the "social thesis" of the original work had been betrayed, he sued. According to Brecht, artistic integrity demanded that the film, like the theatrical production, should have "attacked bourgeois ideology" and demanded that Nero Films destroy the prints. He accused Pabst of being incapable of preserving the original intent of the piece when turning it into film, allowing commercial considerations to destroy Brecht's original vision. Brecht lost his lawsuit, but his long polemic, The Threepenny Lawsuit, an original discussion of the adaptation, caused a stir.

Shortly before Adolf Hitler's ascension to power, Pabst settled in France and spent time in Hollywood, where he directed A Modern Hero (1934); but he found himself in Germany at the beginning of World War II. Although he refused to submit to the injunctions of Nazi propaganda, he decided to continue making movies. He was later reproached for this decision, which was quite out of character with his long-held political views. His subsequent work lacked the demanding aesthetic and ideological character of earlier films and tended to lose visual effectiveness. Pabst's last movies, from Der Prozess (1948; The Trial) to Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen (1956; Through the Forests, Through the Trees) found him working at some remove from any formal preoccupation with using film to intensify and enhance reality. That aim had characterized the realist current in German cinema between the two world wars, represented by Joe May, Leo Mittler, and Piel Jutzi. But Pabst was the standard-bearer and leading light.

See alsoBrecht, Bertolt; Cinema.


Amengual, Barthelemy. G. W. Pabst. Paris, 1966.

Laurent Veray