Abwege, otherwise known as Crisis, or The Devious Path, is streaming as part of the 2020 Limited Edition Pordenone Silent Film Festival. You can sign up here – tickets start at €9.90.
Abwege, GW Pabst’s 1928 film about the descent of one respectable married woman into the depth of the notorious Weimar nightlife is one of the unmissable titles in the programme, and it will be available for 24 hours from Thursday 8 October, with musical accompaniment by Mauro Colombis. You can explore the rest of the programme online.
Pabst was born in Austria in 1885. He started out in the theatre, an actor turned director who only began making films in 1923 at the age of 37. He soon became known as an actor’s director, and especially an actress’s director. His 1925 film The Joyless Street, for example, starred both the Danish diva Asta Nielsen and a then little-known Greta Garbo. He also made two films with the iconic Louise Brooks. But Brigitte Helm, the star of Abwege, was the special one for him.
Pabst was a bit of a puzzle, a contradiction in terms who has been called the “forgotten man” of film history. He was a great director, acclaimed as one of the leading filmmakers of the silent era, and with some incredible sound films to his name too. He is celebrated for his command of mise en scene and imagery, his fluid editing, his coaching of actors and the powerful social conscience and intelligence that runs through his films. He was certainly not a company man and most of his career was spent as an independent filmmaker – this film was made on a one-off deal for the German subsidiary of Universal Pictures.
Why is he not better known today? His career has been overshadowed by controversy over the fact that while he was a committed socialist, a man who promoted the values of equality and honesty, he stayed in Germany during the second world war. He continued to work in the film industry, and although he never made any out-and-out propaganda, and later films he made condemned anti-semitism, understandably people have found this decision impossible to forgive.
Another contradiction: he was a man who lived quietly with his wife and son, but whose films, including this one, are supremely cynical about the heterosexual happy-ever-after. His characters resist or escape marriage and domesticity, and find a more honest and natural existence in those liminal, late-night places: the nightclub, the brothel, the casino, the tavern. The opening scene of this film plays on the confusion between these two kinds of places: are we in a bar, or in a marital home? Louise Brooks famously claimed that he was a secret sensualist, a lecher even, with a vast collection of pornography, and she said that by making his cynical films, he was trying to exorcise romantic passion from his life. Certainly, the kind of love he believed in was not that represented by Hollywood, and he condemned its romantic conventions as “more immoral than any leg show banned by the censor”.
His films were in fact censored, heavily, and he was furious about that. This film you are about to see escaped relatively unscathed in England, bar the discreet deletion of a drug dealer in one of unforgettable nightclub scenes. But the subject of censorship, and studio interference, brings us neatly to his relationship with Brigitte Helm.
Brigitte Helm. With her languid limbs, elegant torso, heavy-lidded eyes and oval face, Helm may be the closest that any real woman has come to looking like a painting by Modigliani. Born in 1906 in Berlin, Helm was 18 when she played her most famous role, the dual role of Maria and the robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Between her passionate scenes as the sympathetic schoolteacher turned leader of the workers’ revolution, and the frenzied dancing of her mechanical mädchen in the nightclub, she was unforgettable, even iconic in her debut role.
But there were more depths to her talent than this splashy beginning, and Pabst saw this from the beginning. He cast her as a blind girl in his radical romance The Love of Jeanne Ney, before giving her the lead in Abwege. He wanted her for Pandora’s Box, but he couldn’t get her – the Ufa studio refused to loan him Helm again, not after he had defied them by making Jeanne Ney such a radical film. Not only is it often remembered as a very rare non-Soviet film that showed sympathy with the Bolshevik cause, but he also included a very explicit scene in which a couple prepare to have extra-marital sex, after promising the studio that he wouldn’t.
Helm worked with many of the best European directors and it is well worth seeking out her performances in say, L’Argent by Marcel L’Herbier and The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna directed by Hanns Scwharz. As it happens, Pabst and Helm would work together again in the early sound era when she starred in the multiple-language versions of The Queen of Atlantis. Of course, she played the queen – an imperious seductive beauty taking her revenge on men. A common theme for Pabst is woman taking revenge on male exploitation.
That was in 1932. She made her last film in 1935 – disgusted by the Nazi takeover of the German film industry, she quit the business. She lived a quiet, almost reclusive life thereafter, and died in 1996, aged 90. Pabst had died long before in 1967, aged 81, and the obituaries were not kind – Brooks fought the battle to keep his name and reputation alive, pretty much single-handed.
Because of Pabst’s damaged reputation, it has been relatively hard to see his films, including this one, for many years. I first saw it in an archive, and translating the German intertitles as I watched. The stunning new restoration that is streaming at the Giornate will hopefully change that.
In Abwege Helm plays Irene, a middle-class woman married to a serious-minded lawyer who works hard to keep their lives comfortable. But she is bored by her comfortable but bland existence, so she follows her more reckless friends into the nightclubs of Berlin – and I don’t care how many rock’n’roll movies you have watched from the 60s, or rave movies from the 90s, say, the depictions of the dance club here are among the most hedonistic, delirious and disorienting ever captured on film.
In my notes from that archive viewing I wrote at one point: “dissolute flapper bites her fan”. All credit goes not just to a selection of brilliant background players, but to Pabst’s signature action editing and the fantastic cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl. As this film shows, while Pabst was no fan of romantic conventions, he doesn’t ignore the dangers of the underworld either – Irene is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Gustav Diessl, one of Pabst’s favourite actors, whom you may have scene in the closing sequence of Pandora’s Box, plays Irene’s upright husband. British actor Jack Trevor plays Walther, the artist with whom she dallies – you may know him from the silent films he made with Michael Curtiz and Alfred Hitchcock – this was his second film with Pabst. Look out also for Nico Turoff, a Ukrainian boxer who plays a boxer here too – this was at the beginning of his acting career. In the end he made more than 100 films, working up to the 1970s. There is one person here who threatens to steal the scenes from Helm – Liane, a friend of Irene’s who is shall we say, more worldly wise than she is? She is played by the marvellous Hertha van Walther, a woman capable of conveying great wickedness in her eyes, and one of Pabst’s regulars whom you may have seen in his films or in, say, Fritz Lang’s M.
I won’t spoil the film with any more details. I hope you can find time to join in the virtual Giornate this year, and allow Brigitte Helm to lead you on a devious path into the Weimar underworld, with the music of Mauro Colombis to guide you to the centre of the dancefloor.