G.W. Pabst

Active - 1923 - 1956  |   Born - Aug 27, 1885 in Raudnitz, Bohemia (Czechoslovakia)  |   Died - May 29, 1967 in Vienna, Austria  |   Genres - Drama

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Born in Bohemia to Viennese parents, director G. W. Pabst made only one American film in his career, yet became the darling of U.S. critics and movie historians for a handful of brilliant silent works. Pabst studied at Vienna's Academy of Decorate Arts, then embarked on a theatrical career in 1906. He worked as a stage director in Europe and briefly in New York with a German-language company until World War I. In France, when hostilities broke out, he was required to be a "guest of the state" until the Armistice. During this period, he continued as a director of French-language plays. Back in Vienna in the early 1920s, Pabst was one of the vanguards of the experimental theatre movement. This led to an interest in the less-confining vistas of film. Establishing himself as a movie director in 1923, Pabst made his mark by turning out productions of pessimistic realism, intermixed with unstressed impressionism. He directed Garbo in A Joyless Street (1925), then helmed the pioneering Freudian drama Secrets of a Soul (1926). Pabst helped create the "Louise Brooks mystique" by casting the expatriate American actress in two of his most elaborate (and most heavily censored) sociological sex dramas, Pandora's Box (1928) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). Whenever speaking of Pabst in later years, Brooks was quick to note that the effectiveness of her highly-disciplined performances was almost entirely due to Pabst's ability to precisely envision the film's final cut -- camera angles, titles, closeups -- before he even started shooting. Despite his meticulous pre-planning, Pabst's results invariably seemed fresh and spontaneous, adding to the underlying realism of his work. The director launched his talkie career with three of his finest films: Westfront 1918, an antiwar picture; The Threepenny Opera, the definitive version of that Brecht/Weill musical (filmed in two languages, both versions starring legendary Brechtian actress Lotte Lenya); and Kameradschaft, a German/French co-production that preached a doctrine of solidarity between nations. With this last film in particular, Pabst was out of step with the edicts of the burgeoning Nazi party. Summing up his animosity towards Der Fuhrer nearly a quarter-century later with the fevered "bunker" drama The Last Ten Days (1956). In Hollywood in 1934, after two French-made projects, including Don Quixote (1933), with opera star Feodor Chaliapin, Pabst directed A Modern Hero (1934), an indifferent soap opera starring Richard Barthelmess. Back in France at the outbreak of World War II, Pabst moved to Germany, where he made two films for the government. Pabst's feelings concerning Nazism could be seen in his postwar The Trial (1948), a prize-winning attack against anti-Semitism. Pabst continued making films in Germany, Austria, and Italy until his retirement in 1956.

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