Pabst. Pabst is here because of the distinct visual stamp he put on his work. The filmography is strong but with only six films in the archives and only one top 500 film—it’s the distinct visuals that put him here. It’s a really brief stretch- from 1927 to 1933 where Pabst reigned. But what a stretch! I’ll get to it below but his work with sound and, especially, detailed mise-en-scene make him one of the all-time greats.

Best film: The 3 Penny Opera

  • I’m not overly familiar with Brechtian style so have to do my best here to analyze the film based on my cinema knowledge. I do know that Brecht believed in the distancing effect—or the alienation/estrangement effect which basically (again, as I understand it) is about how he doesn’t want the audience to overly emphasize with his characters and I see that here and how powerfully it works
  • Depression-era hard-hit Germany. It centers on the lower depths of society, crime, money, bread, survival, poverty—gorgeous opening shot down an alley.
  • Talented shot by Pabst- reflection in glass at the absolute perfect angle
  • A roving camera throughout—plenty of shots behind windows
  • The dialogue is largely unspoken—looks and glances and quite effective
  • Busy mise-en-scene in the alleys and bars
  • Heavy use of glass and mirrors
  • Mackie- “Mack the Knife”- master of the underground- seedy vs Peachum who is beggar king
  • The songs—(done largely by “the street singer” Ernst Busch) are a formal element. Strong. I’ve seen it influence everything after from Cabaret (he’s the Joel Grey character- a sort of narrator that isn’t in the story really or the main narrative). Perhaps not on the nose but I can also see its influences on pennies from heaven, dancer in the dark, Demy, and berlin alexander—this is a far cry from Hollywood escapism musicals that would come after
  • I wish Pabst had shot pandora’s box this way—I love the male gaze factor, narrative arc and Louise Brooks’ performance/character but this film is directed more strongly by Pabst
  • A stunner of a shot through a brothel. Tracking shot like Murnau and some nice mise-en-scene/décor clutter and detail like caligari or Von Sternberg
  • Nihilistic and dark
  • Narrator talking to the camera- “Even you won’t see this turn in the story coming” (paraphrase)—reflexive and breaking the 4th wall
  • The coronation parade is built up throughout as the big day and the payoff spectacle is worth the wait and anticipation. It reminds me of day of the locusts and gangs of new york with it being sort of a street riot and explosion
  • The “Mack the Knife” song is wonderful- even nearly 100 years later
  • Shadowy dystopia—a mesh between depression-era realism and overly expressive mise-en-scene
  • Must-See
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one of cinema’s first to use the entire frame as a canvas- here in The 3 Penny Opera
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like many of the German expressionists of the era- a masterful use of light and shadow

total archiveable films: 6

top 100 films:  0

top 500 films:  1 (The 3 Penny Opera)

top 100 films of the decade:  3 (The 3 Penny Opera, Pandora’s Box, Kameradschaft)

most overrated:  Pandora’s Box at #279 on TSPDT and I can’t find room for it in my top 500. It just isn’t there visually.

  • Pabst’s film features an enthralling narrative and rich characterizations
  • Louise Brooks and her tragic character, Lulu, are/were so influential to the time and to cinema lore (see films and outright homages by Tarantino (hair by Uma in pulp fiction), Demme (Melanie Griffith in something wild), Fassbinder (actual film lola– 1981) and Demy (ditto- character and film named lola – 1961)—Brooks herself was a pop icon in the late 20’s and early 30’s from this film
  • A rich study on the male gaze
  • The structure of the film is set up in act’s- each scene/setting is an act—if they move from her room to the theater that’s a new act
  • Great tracking shot in act 1 when she seals the deal (temporarily) on opening seduction
  • Film and character defined an era—hair, backless dress and scantily dressed clothes
  • It’s to Brooks’ credit as an actress that you find yourself rooting for her
  • Endlessly trendy and fashionable- she dances with a woman, who is in love with her- obviously risqué  for 1929
  • Act 3 the variety show and act 4 the wedding is loaded with mise-en-scene- really well done but this isn’t Von Sternberg certainly with what he does with the frame, Murnau with the camera or von Stroheim with the overall obsessive level of detail—as far as comparisons with peers from that era
  • Love the operatic death scene in act 4- probably the best act- greek tragedy like the actual Pandora—there’s a Han Solo-carbonite-like gorgeous artwork in the backdrop in the frames
  • Close up in big moments- the film clearly influenced Demme (something wild finale, silence of the lambs)
  • It’s a large story, ambitious, epic and prophetic
  • That’s a quick great shot in act 7 of the camera going below deck with the characters as they descent into gambling
  • Reminds me of greed from von Stroheim—statement on the times of the 20’s- nihilistic
  • Brooks’ Lulu is likeable but she’s absolutely toxic as well- it’s a story of male gaze and survival for her but it also works as a tale of morality for the men who fall for her— she’s a victim and the culprit
  • Interesting Jack the Ripper ending- ending in male gaze turned deadly
  • HR quality stretching to a MS- top 5 of the year- HR/MS border
Pandora’s Box – Pabst’s most well-known and renowned work– I’d argue it has more to do with the Louise Brooks’ character and narrative than cinematic style

most underrated:  It’s definitely the 3 Penny Opera. The 3 Penny Opera isn’t in top 1000 on TSPDT and I have it at #421. In fact, there’s only 1 film for Pabst in the TSPDT top 1000 and it’s Pandora’s Box.

perhaps Pabst’s greatest single image- from The 3 Penny Opera– using the masts and intersecting lines from the ships to design the frame

gem I want to spotlight:    Kameradschaft or often known as Comradeship. It’s been ages, too long, since I’ve seen it- so it’s hard to properly review it- but the visuals are stunning. 

stylistic innovations/traits:    The 3 Penny Opera is a more artistically ambitious version of The Jazz Singer in the ways it uses sound and form. Visually, Pabst is a master of atmosphere through mise-en-scene. He often tracked the camera like Murnau and designed the frame like von Sternberg—what a combination and what a rich time for German cinema! Pandora’s Box, though not his best film, has become the film of his reputation with the study of male gaze and the immortal character of Louise Brooks’ “Lola” and it’s influence on everyone from Fassbinder, to Demy (both made great films named “Lola”) to Demme and Tarantino (nodding to Pabst and playing homage with that iconic haircut). His films, coming in the decade after WWI, have the unmistakable air of nihilism.


top 10

  1. The 3 Penny Opera
  2. Pandora’s Box
  3. Kameradschaft
  4. Diary of a Lost Girl
  5. The Love of Jeanne Ney
  6. Don Quixote


By year and grades

1927- The Love of Jeanne Ney R
1929- Diary of a Lost Girl  
1929- Pandora’s Box HR/MS
1931- Kameradschaft HR
1931- The 3 Penny Opera MS
1933- Don Quixote  




*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives