review for Die Freudlose Gasse on AllMovie

Die Freudlose Gasse (1925)
by Craig Butler review

Although The Joyless Street is remembered chiefly as the film that made an international star out of the legendary Greta Garbo, it's actually much more than a star showcase. Indeed, though Garbo dominates much of the film through her sheer star power, hers is actually a secondary role in what is essentially an ensemble drama. Even the part played by top-billed Asta Nielsen, at the time a much bigger established star than Garbo, is simply part of the larger cast. That's as it should be, for Street is not about any one person but about a time, a place and, above all, a society that was perilously divided into two very unequal parts. Director G.W. Pabst and scenarist Willy Haas have created a social conscience melodrama that is enormously powerful; it's manipulative at times, but there's such commitment behind it that most viewers won't mind. Pabst is excellent at exploring the bleakness and despair of the residents of the Street and contrasting it with the amorality and immorality of the upper classes, who think nothing of spreading false rumors that will destroy many but will increase their own already considerable wealth. Money exerts a powerful grip on almost all the characters, whether through greed or necessity, and Pabst demonstrates how it can become a dangerously controlling force. The director is helped immensely by the atmospheric lensing of Robert Lach and Guido Seeber, and even more so by his cast. Garbo is wonderful, more vibrant and alive than she was often allowed to be in her Hollywood outings, yet still having that world-weary air; the battle between the two conditions exemplifies the battle her character also undergoes. Nielsen is also striking, giving a performance that is imbued with tremendous nuance; even in her bizarre "mad" costume, she is mesmerizing. Werner Krauss is appropriately villainous, and the rest of the cast is quite good. Street was heavily censored and mercilessly mutilated in many countries, including the U.S., when it was originally released; viewers should be wary of any version that is considerably shorter than 96 minutes.