Melchior Street is a microcosm of Vienna just after World War I. Inflation is rampant, poverty and vice are widespread, and the division between rich and poor is vast. Outside a butcher shop, the poor and hungry wait in line, ready to barter whatever it takes to buy a scrap of meat. Among them are two desperate young women, Maria and Grete. Nearby, a dress shop is a front for a brothel where rich and powerful men have their choice of women forced to exchange their bodies for the necessities of life. Soon, Maria and Grete will be among them.
This is the sordid world of The Joyless Street, based on Hugo Bettauer’s controversial 1924 novel that had been serialized in a Viennese newspaper. The 1925 film was among the first in German cinema to move away from expressionism, the stylized and abstract visual images used to portray inner turmoil. Known as “The New Objectivity” (Die Neue Sachlichkeit), this approach to filmmaking, art, and literature was more realistic and encompassed the distinctly German subgenre of strassefilme, which focused on city streets as places of violence and despair. The Joyless Street marked turning points in the careers of its director G.W. Pabst and its stars, veteran Danish star Asta Nielsen and 19-year-old Swedish newcomer Greta Garbo. It was also the beginning of the end of the creative partnership between Garbo and her mentor, Mauritz Stiller.
Garbo was Stiller’s discovery. The Finnish-born director had chosen her for a starring role in his Swedish film, The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924), and her performance caused a sensation worldwide. While in Berlin for the German premiere, Stiller made a deal with a German distributor for his next film with Garbo, the story of a Russian girl sold into a Turkish harem. In late 1924, Stiller and Garbo, along with costar Einar Hanson, left for Constantinople. However, the company financing the film went bankrupt, and the three returned to Germany where Stiller juggled offers for Garbo’s services. The immediate solution for their cash flow problems soon presented itself in the form of Viennese-born director G.W. Pabst.
Pabst had seen Gosta Berling and wanted to know if Garbo was available to play the second lead in The Joyless Street, his third film as director. According to Garbo biographer Alexander Walker, Stiller replied, “Beautiful pictures can be made of Greta Garbo, if you know how to make pictures; but she cannot act.” He asked for and got $4,000 (a huge sum in those days) for Garbo, in addition to a part in the film for Hanson. Stiller also insisted that Garbo be photographed with expensive Kodak film stock, instead of the cheaper Agfa brand then used in Germany. During production, Pabst noticed that the young actress had developed a nervous facial tic in close-ups. Someone—probably cameraman Guido Seeber—came up with the idea of shooting her close-ups in slow motion. Imperceptibly slowed, her performance took on a dreamlike quality. Still, Seeber’s lighting did not make the most of Garbo’s beauty, and Pabst hired a lighting specialist for her, one of the first directors to use such a technician. Walker writes that Pabst was also “patiently involved in helping an intuitive actress make emotional discoveries in herself and the role.” Nervous about acting without Stiller’s guidance, Garbo worked 12- and 14-hour days with Pabst, then spent several more hours with Stiller preparing for the next day’s scenes.
According to Garbo biographer Barry Paris, Asta Nielsen was one of the few cast members “who thought Garbo was worth all the trouble.” The Danish-born Nielsen, known simply as “Die Asta,” was one of the first international movie stars, and, since 1912, one of the leading film actresses in Germany. Her androgynous image, independent manner—she often played liberated women and was among the first actresses to have her own production company—and naturalistic acting style made her unique at the time. In her autobiography, Nielsen wrote “I realized that one had to detach oneself completely from one’s surroundings to be able to perform an important scene in a dramatic film. The opportunity to develop character and mood gradually, something denied the film actor, can only be replaced by a kind of ‘auto-suggestion.’” At 43, she was too old for the role of teenage Maria in The Joyless Street, but in one scene where she recalls a traumatic incident her trance-like performance is chillingly effective. An innovator throughout her career, Nielsen was quick to recognize Garbo’s unique qualities, and Garbo later said that everything she knew about acting she learned from Nielsen, who retired from films in 1932 after making only one talkie.
Garbo biographer Paris is among those who credit Pabst rather than Stiller for Garbo’s nuanced performance. “Now, to many, [she] was Pabst’s discovery as much as Stiller’s … Garbo, the ‘European actress,’ matured substantially in her short time with Pabst.” Garbo and Pabst talked about working together on other projects, but Stiller, who had signed a contract for himself and Garbo with MGM, persuaded her to stick with him. The two went to Hollywood but never completed another film together.
The Joyless Street attracted huge crowds because of its shocking subject matter. It portrayed not only the era’s economic hardship and the young women subsequently forced into prostitution but also the decadence rampant in postwar society. The film’s success immediately shot Pabst to the top ranks of directors in Germany. But because of its frank depiction of corruption and vice, it was heavily censored or sometimes banned in Germany and elsewhere. According to film historian Paul Rotha, “When completed, it was ten thousand feet in length … France accepted the film, deleting two thousand feet and every shot of ‘the street’ itself. Vienna extracted all sequences in which Werner Krauss appeared as the butcher. Russia turned the American Lieutenant into a doctor and made the butcher the murderer instead of the girl.”
Censorship problems and edits meant that a complete version might never have existed—Pabst’s editor Mark Sorkin claimed that he and Pabst made the first cuts the night before the premiere, at the insistence of the theater owner. The German censors demanded more cuts in 1926. Each time the film was censored, the pieces had to be re-edited so that the story made sense, and multiple versions proliferated. New reconstructions appeared in 1989 and again in 1995. This current, most complete version by the Filmmuseum München dates from 2012.
Pabst’s artistic reputation rests on his two silent films starring Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box (1929) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), as well as the sound film The Threepenny Opera (1931). His long career was inevitably tarnished when he returned to Germany at the start of World War II and made two films. Following the war, he returned to his hometown of Vienna and directed a series of anti-Nazi films. He retired in 1956 and died in 1967.
Today, The Joyless Street is best remembered as the film that launched Pabst’s career and gave a major boost to Garbo’s. It also provides a realistic portrait of postwar Austria and Germany. As Rotha writes: “No film or novel has so truthfully recorded the despair of defeat, and the false values after war, as The Joyless Street.”
Presented at SFSFF 2013 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble