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Weimar Noir: “Lounge time” in the Cinema of G.W. Pabst
Austrian-born director Georg Wilhelm Pabst, who made some of the most fascinating, and darkly disillusioned films produced in Berlin during the Weimar period, registered one ill- fated foray into Hollywood in 1933-5. There he directed just one film, A Modern Hero (1934), a Pre-code tale of ruthless social climbing and sexual exploitation, but clashed with the Warner Bros studio management, which reinforced his existing low opinion of American commercial cinema. In fact, after working more happily in Paris, he returned to Germany (called back, he said, for family reasons), and worked in the Berlin film industry during the second world war. Therefore, Pabst was destined never to join the band of European emigrés who settled in Los Angeles between the wars and brought their skills and attitudes to Golden Age Hollywood cinema, and the shadowy subset known as film noir, in particular. However, the prism of Hollywood film noir, and one theorist’s way of dissecting the construction of films made in this mode, may throw some light on the work of Pabst, and his understanding of the spaces of Weimar Berlin, the wreckage of post-war, post- revolutionary Europe and underworlds both metaphorical and literal, from casinos and nightclubs to coal mines, trenches and the lost city of Atlantis.
In an influential 1998 essay, the theorist and critic Vivian Sobchack invited us to understand film noir through the spaces that the characters in these movies inhabit. Not the psychological or metaphorical spaces, but the bricks-and-mortar locations in which the tough guys and femmes fatales pass their time – a kind of time that Sobchack called “lounge time.” The places “to which we should pay heed,” she wrote, “are the cocktail lounge, the nightclub, the bar, the hotel room, the boardinghouse, the diner, the dance hall, the roadside café, the bus and train station, and the wayside motel. These are the recurrent and determinate premises of film noir and they emerge from common places in wartime and postwar American culture that, transported to the screen, gain hyperbolized presence and overdetermined meaning.”
Sobchack identifies the fact that film noirs are hardly ever set inside traditional family homes, but in transient places instead – hotels, stations and bars, even prison cells. When we spend any length of time in a character’s home, as in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, the penthouse apartment owned by Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) looks more like an upmarket cocktail lounge than a dwelling. Sobchack talks about “cold glitter of the houses of the rich, where money buys interior decoration and fine art but no warmth, no nurturance”. As Vince’s girlfriend Debby, Gloria Grahame shimmies through the living area, mixing a cocktail. Or, in the same film, when we do see a conventional suburban house, home to detective Sergeant Bannion (Glenn Ford) and his wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando), the potential of this building to become a family home is immediately destroyed. A bomb planted in the car on the driveway kills Katie instantaneously. This in turn forces Bannion to investigate, and to explore the criminal underworld, which means the nightclub and the “glittering” penthouse where Vince does business.
For Sobchack “the loss of home becomes a structuring absence in film noir.” Sometimes characters will swap a real home for a pastiche, as when the heroine of Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) escapes her domestic kitchen to open a chain of restaurants feeding other women’s husbands, and families who are far away from home. The feminine branding of the restaurant chain, and the server’s aprons recall Mildred’s (Joan Crawford) previous existence as a housewife and mother, baking pies for her family – but the chain itself represents the loss of home. Mildred’s decision to become a businesswoman is motivated by the weakening of her family’s traditional gender roles: her husband fails as a breadwinner, so she sells pastry goods, baked in the family kitchen. When he leaves her for another woman, she works as a waitress. After her youngest daughter dies, she opens her first restaurant. As she becomes a successful restaurateur, her distance from the traditional maternal role is marked by the increasingly bad and “unnatural” behavior of her oldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth), who fakes a pregnancy to ensure a financially advantageous marriage, and eventually seduces her mother’s lover. Aptly, Veda also performs as a singer in cocktail lounges.
Mildred loses her family life as she provides ersatz home cooking for travelling salesmen. Sobchack’s phrase “lounge time” represents the lives of the transients who dwell in these non-domestic spaces: “the uprooted, the unemployed, the loose, the existentially paralyzed,” she says. “Lounge time concretely spatializes and temporalizes into narrative an idle moment in our cultural history.” In Clash by Night (Fritz Lang, 1952), Barbara Stanwyck’s character returns to her hometown of Monterey, California after a decade far from home: she was living on the east coast and having an affair with a married man. She experiences a cold welcome from her brother and his girlfriend. As she puts it: “Home is where you go when you run out of places.”
In postwar America, Sobchack argues, men and women were disturbed by their recent experiences, but perversely felt the need to settle down, to recover from the trauma of war, to reunite as families. There was a housing crisis, not enough homes to go around, which meant that traumatized men and women were living together in boarding rooms, hotels, trying to pretend that four walls could make a home.
It’s well documented that there is a link between film noir and the cinema of Weimar Germany. That the various ex-pats working in Hollywood transfigured the psychological unease and shadowy photography of German Expressionism into the psychological unease and shadowy photography of film noir. Expressionism wasn’t the only mode in Weimar cinema that has a link to film noir, though. The “street films,” the Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity of German cinematic realists such as Gerhard Lamprecht and GW Pabst, all have something in common with the street-level grit, the low-lifes and hard choices of film noir. As Anton Kaes has written, “the classical cinema of Weimar Germany is haunted by the memory of a traumatic war whose outcome was never officially acknowledged, let alone accepted.” Hence the need to dwell in lounge time, in the films that linger in transient spaces far from home. Weimar Germany, as well remembered for its artistic success and sexual and chemical decadence as its rising crime, inflation, housing crisis and all the other social problems that followed the end of the first world war, could well be described as an “an idle moment in our cultural history.” Haunted by the past, and unable to make homes, raise families, Weimar men and women forgot their troubles, and put their lives on hold, to dance.
When I think about lounge time in film noir, I think about Weimar cinema too, and especially the spaces that recur in the films of GW Pabst. He sets his films in lounge time. In brothels, casinos, nightclubs, taverns, reform schools, in the criminal underworld of London (The Threepenny Opera, 1931) and even a lost ancient city, trapped underground, that is in fact a kind of cocktail lounge crossed with a boudoir (L’Atlantide, 1932).
Home is not just an architectural or sociological concept. Pabst’s first sound film, the WWI drama Westfront 1918 (1930), is set in the trenches on the front line of the conflict. Made a year later, Kameradschaft (1931), takes place in a coalmine where a terrible disaster occurs. Jaimey Fisher has written, in an essay on Westfront 1918, about how Pabst uses sound “to manipulate on- and off-screen space in ways that also dovetail with the culture’s spatial imaginary.” Here the idea of home becomes geographic, geopolitical, rather than domestic. The trenches, which are temporary and inhospitable by their essential nature, and the battlefield, redraw the boundaries of the homeland. The soldiers fighting in those trenches are concerned with fighting for their home nation, while simultaneously far from home and its comforts. Further, the consequences of the conflict will transform the country itself, making it less like home – creating space for the rise of far-right nationalist politics, in which borders become a yet more dangerous concept. In Kameradschaft, German and French coalminers struggle for their lives in a destabilization of the European soil itself. The cross- border solidarity or Kameradschaft expressed by the soldiers gives voice to Pabst’s idealist and antifascist desire that the nationalism of the far-right will fail. However, Pabst’s cynicism manifests itself once more. After making speeches about their fraternal bonds, the miners reinstall the grilles in the tunnels that represent the national borders.
The Treasure (GW Pabst, 1923)
The homes depicted in Pabst’s films too, whether opulent or pitifully shabby, are cold with “no warmth, no nurturance.” In Pabst’s first film, The Treasure (1923), the family home has more economic than domestic value. It contains a secret hoard of stolen gold, and the mother squirrels away her savings in odd places. The people who live there are at odds with each other, and value the gold trapped in the house, rather than its sanctity as a family home. Stopping off on the way to this horrid house, the film’s hero visits a tavern, which by contrast is filled with warmth, communality, and the shared comforts of food, drink and sexual pleasure.
In Abwege (1928), Irene (Brigitte Helm) lives in a sleek and comfortless home with her cruel and distant husband, but she is soon drawn into the decadent whirl of the Berlin nightclub scene. The opening shot of the film deliberately disorients the viewer in the spaces of lounge time. Tightly framed shots make it appear that the scene is set in a café-bar, where a man is sketching Irene’s portrait on a napkin while she drinks and smokes with her friend at the next table. Irene takes the napkin and while she pauses to contemplate his invitation to a party, her husband arrives, motivating a longer shot, which reveals that they aren’t in a bar at all. We are in Irene’s marital home, albeit one that, as Sobchack describes, is as anonymous as one of those transient spaces that will attract Irene. Her husband forbids her to go out dancing, meaning that as in other Pabst films, the home is more of a cage than a haven. When Irene eventually defies her husband and visits the nightclub, she is as bewildered and horrified by what she sees as she is excited and seduced. Later, these dubious influences enter her private life when her club friends invade her marital home.
Theodor Sparkuhl’s camerawork in the nightclub scenes is designed to mimic Irene’s intoxicated and delirious state and, as Pabst cuts on action, the audience is easily swept away by the movement on screen. It is impossible to watch these scenes of Jazz Age Berlin dissolution without thinking of Hans Ostwald’s comment about the decline of the family in Weimar Germany, that “an ecstasy of eroticism cast the world into chaos.”
Abwege is a film fully immersed in lounge time. How does time pass for the young woman Irene meets in the nightclub who moves slowly because she is languorously narcotized, and looking to sell her body for another dose? How will time pass for Irene, once she has swallowed the same poison? Is she still the woman she once was, or a lifeless doll like the one she is given as a gift by another nightclub patron?
In Pabst’s third and final collaboration with Helm, the desert fantasy L’Atlantide (1932), she would play Antinéa, queen of Atlantis, revered as a goddess by the men kidnapped and trapped in her lair. This is an underground realm, styled as a 20 th -century club, and a space directly connected with both the Paris cabaret where her mother danced the Can-Can and the underworld, via the use of the ‘Infernal Galop’ from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld on the soundtrack. The days that two French officers spend in Atlantis seem to drag, but aptly they exist on a different temporal plane to the real world. Atlantis is only a fever dream, and their extended underground ordeal represents only a blink of the eye on the surface.
One of the clearest examples of Pabst’s negotiation of deceptive spaces can be found in his 1924 film The Joyless Street, based on the popular 1924 novel by Hugo Bettauer. In this exemplar of the “street film” set during the period of hyperinflation in Austria, spatial relationships are key. As Sara F. Hall has written, “The arrangement of the domestic, entertainment, and business venues serves as a representational code that, when deciphered, reveals just how prominently geography and real estate figure in the formation of identity and morality in the society depicted.”
In an early scene, Greta Garbo’s character Grete goes to buy a coat in a dress shop, which appears to be respectably well-appointed, but this is no ordinary boutique. The obsequious, slightly jarring performance of avant-garde cabaret star Valeska Gert as the shopkeeper Frau Greifer, eyeing up Grete as she browses the goods, might give us a clue to the fact that the shop is just a front for another business. Greifer holds out an expensive, fur coat for Grete to try – more expensive than the ones that she has been looking at. A close-up reveals Grete’s excitement but also her attractive features: as viewers we can already start to make the connection between this beautiful young woman and the luxurious garment. Greifer grotesquely mimics the elegant sway of Grete’s head. As they perform a little pantomime of temptation and resistance, two sex workers enter the boutique, cross in front of Grete and Greifer and sit in the corner by the door at the back of the shop. Greifer gestures to them, as if they are also customers enjoying her generous terms of credit. As Grete tries on the coat, her reflection is also visible in the mirror in the center of the shop. This split vision is another alert that the shop space has a double meaning. The boutique conceals an entrance to Greifer’s nightclub, through that door at the back, and the cabaret is also a brothel. In The Joyless Street lounge time exists in the shadows of respectable society, behind a door or a curtain. In this film, writes Hall, “seemingly upstanding places of business… possess back rooms… where the true business of life in Vienna goes on: prostitution, sexual harassment, exploitation and even murder.” The boutique is not the only suspicious shop on the street: down the road, the butcher offers flesh for flesh, exchanging meat for sexual favors in the back room behind his meat counter.
While Grete admires herself in the mirror, Marie (Asta Nielsen), a young woman desperate for money to support her parents, enters the shop. Marie and Grete’s narratives are contrasted through cross-cutting throughout the film. In this scene, Marie is anxious, twisting her hands in distress, and with trepidation she crosses the floor and enters the door at the back of the shop. The door does not lead directly to the nightclub. Marie hovers for a time in an anteroom between the boutique and the cabaret, deciding whether or not to enter the latter space, and by implication into a contract to prostitute herself. As she is poised literally on this threshold, the film cuts back to Grete, another glamorous closeup, and her decision to take the coat on credit. Grete unwisely places herself in a transactional relationship with Greifer, who will later try to employ her in her brothel. The moment that she admires herself in the mirror, in the expensive coat that betokens social standing and wealth beyond her means, she also puts herself in danger. Although she doesn’t know it yet, she is in the same position as Marie. The boundaries between these spaces, their social status and the moral choices that are made within them, become porous. Melchior Alley is home for Marie and Grete, but they are both at risk from the dangers in its non-domestic spaces: even the feminized spaces of food and clothes shops.
In Pabst’s lounge time, sex is for sale, and even romantic relationships are tainted by economics. In Pandora’s Box (1929), Lulu begins her journey in a cold, glittering apartment and ends in a comfortless attic. In between there’s a floating casino, a no man’s land of economic and moral hyperinflation, in which couples conspire to sell other people’s bodies to pay their own debts, in which a lesbian prepares to give herself to a thuggish man, to pay someone else’s debt. There’s a wedding in the middle of the film, but it becomes the scene of a murder, and the marital bed is never shared by man and wife.
The theme continues in Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), which revolves around sex work and a brothel: one that is comparatively more luxurious, welcoming and even homely than other domestic or semi-domestic spaces in the film. These include the heroine’s childhood home over a pharmacy, where she is raped and her child is taken away, an inversion of family life, and the brutal reform school ruled by perverse teachers who find sexual gratification in disciplining their students. That is not to say that the brothel space is presented as ideal – Diary of a Lost Girl, like Pandora’s Box and The Joyless Street, connects sex work to the objectification and commodification of women.
Pabst takes pains to make the progress of Thymian (Louise Brooks) out of her innocence seem more a seduction than an abduction, and one supported by an ersatz family group, as if it were a wedding party – or her family’s complicity in her rape earlier in the film. The film cuts between each sip of champagne Thymian takes and the expectant faces of the crowd around her. The crowd comprises sex workers and clients, including the gray-haired, benevolently smiling madam – a far more welcoming figure than the tyrannous mistress of the reformatory school that Thymian has just escaped. A certain ambivalence is created by the leering grins of some in the crowd, but the rhythm of the editing makes what happens next seem inevitable, as if we are counting the sips until Thymian accepts her client’s embrace. Eventually, Thymian smiles almost directly at the camera, a gesture to our complicity as spectators in her seduction, the equivalent of the brothel workers and patrons.
As the workers and clients pair up, they start to dance, and as if sleepwalking or at least led by the music playing on the gramophone, they dance, step by step, couple by couple, into the bedrooms situated just off the brothel’s lounge. Finally, Thymian and her partner follow them and start to dance. Thymian falls backwards as she dances in her partner’s arms. It is a pose of surrender, but it may not signify consent. It is similar to the pose she adopted during her rape at the beginning of the film. Thus Pabst makes a link between the two seductions, emphasizing that despite its relative allure, the brothel is a place of danger. When Thymian wakes up the next morning, despite her clean, comfortable surroundings, she appears to regret the night before. The madam and another worker sit on her bed, and the Madam hands over Thymian’s earnings. She is horrified and confused by the money: just as when she was drinking the novel champagne the previous night, first she registered distaste, and then puzzlement. The brothel regulars arrive and crowd around her once again, waiting to assess her reaction as she considers how she feels. But Thymian rejects the money, and the brothel life. At least for now.
Throughout Pabst’s films, idle men and women fail to create harmonious family homes – they seduce and punish each other in these dens of licentiousness and iniquity, which critic Lee Atwell calls the “Pabstian milieu.” In Pabst’s films, there is a particular kind of tension between “lounge time” and real time, the socially sanctioned domestic ideal of marriage, children and a comfortable home. We could follow Brigitte Helm on to the dancefloor in Abwege, or encounter her in her underground den in L’Atlantide: we would still be tapping our toes to lounge time.
In The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), the heroine Jeanne (Édith Jéhanne) makes the decision to stay with her fugitive boyfriend Andreas (Uno Henning) in a hotel for the night rather than go home: “I can’t go there again.” A knowing look just past the camera emphasizes that she understands sexual implications of her decision. Handheld camerawork roaming across the hotel sign and then the details of the room emphasizes that she understands the social implications of her decision. She is not just about to have sex but to do so in a low-class hotel for transients, one where a sex worker might take her client, and she can easily be seen entering the establishment. The highlighted word “blanche” in the sign for “Hotel de la Reine blanche” might be read as ironic. The concierge is pointedly incurious as she takes the money for the room, a further indication that the hotel is not a place in which one wants to be seen. Although as soon as they get to the room the couple laughs off an interruption from a stranger, accompanied by a woman who is dusting the dirt off her skirt.
The transient illicit space of the hotel, and its clear connotations of extramarital liaisons are immediately set against the scene visible through the window of the building opposite. A large family group is celebrating a wedding, toasting what is by contrast a completely legitimate sexual encounter, in a fully domestic setting. At first, Jeanne and Andreas appear saddened by this view, comparing this happy party to their own shabby surroundings. But then they clasp their hands together in a display of affection and fortitude, and look out of the window again. The camera moves forward to highlight the figure of the bride herself, the “Reine blanche” who puts down her glass, and leaves the table to go to the window where she weeps. In close-up, with a tear in her eye, her true melancholy is revealed. As so often in Pabst, the family home, the tradition of marriage and the limitations of domestic work, are a trap for women. The bride in white, in the bosom of her family, now appears to be jealous of the runaway lovers in the grubby hotel. As the bride is pulled back into the room and into an embrace with her overbearing groom, Jeanne and Andreas share a romantic kiss. In Pabst’s film, the hotel, with its sordid associations and lack of legitimacy, is still preferable to the hypocrisies of home and the tyranny of “Kinder, Küche, Kirche.”
If, as Sobchack says, “the loss of home becomes a structuring absence in film noir,” that is almost true in Pabst’s films too. His characters are driven out of loveless and hypocritical homes – they don’t believe in Heimat or Kinder, Küche, Kirche – into places of greater honesty, with more emphasis on pleasure and less on the appearance of puritanism. The melancholy in his films stems from the fact that these places are also dangerous, loveless with “no warmth, no nurturance.”
Interviewed in Sight and Sound magazine in 1938, Pabst attacked the Hollywood philosophy that prizes marriage and material comfort above all. This outlook, he said “breeds discontent among hundreds of young people who are certain that silk beds and satin counterpanes are the high road to happiness in life, as the romantic films teach them. All this is so much mental dope and more immoral than any leg show banned by the censor.”
Pabst never allows his characters to fall victim to this particular lie, but he constantly reminds us that the transient world they escape into has its risks too. It’s a shadowy world of crime, degradation and commodification of the flesh, where a person could lose more than time. It’s Weimar Noir, and it’s dangerous out there.
This essay expands on a 2019 post on the blog Silentlondon.co.uk
Pamela Hutchinson is a freelance critic, curator and film historian, based on the south coast of England. She writes for titles including Sight and Sound, Criterion, and the Guardian, and regularly appears on BBC radio. Her publications include BFI Film Classics on The Red Shoes (forthcoming) and Pandora's Box, as well as essays in edited collections. She has curated film seasons on Marlene Dietrich, Asta Nielsen, and Pre-Code Hollywood. Her website SilentLondon.co.uk is devoted to silent cinema.
 For an account of Pabst’s time in the US, and a reading of A Modern Hero as an Oedipal drama, see Jan- Christopher Horak, "G.W. Pabst in Hollywood or Every Modern Hero Deserves a Mother," Film History, no. 1 (1987): 53-63.
 Vivian Sobchack, “Lounge Time: Postwar Crises and the Chronotype of Film Noir,” Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. Nick Browne (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998), 130.
 Sobchack, “Lounge Time,” 144.
 Sobchack, “Lounge Time,” 167.
 Anton Kaes, Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War (New Jersey: Princeton, 2009), 2.
 Jaimey Fisher, “Landscapes of Death: Space and the Mobilization Genre in G. W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918 (1930),” The Many Faces of Weimar Cinema: Rediscovering Germany's Filmic Legacy, ed. Christian Rogowski (Rochester: Camden House, 2010), 269.
 Hans Ostwald, ‘A Moral History of the Inflation’ (1931), https://ghdi.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=3844.
 Sara F. Hall, “Inflation and Devaluation: Gender, Space, and Economics in G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925), Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era, ed. Noah Isenberg (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 135-154.
 Hall, “Inflation,” 143.
 Lee Atwell, G.W. Pabst (Boston: Twayne, 1977), 98.
 Sobchack, “Lounge Time,” 144.
 Beatrix Moore, ‘Censor the censor!’ Interview with G. W. Pabst, Sight & Sound, vol. 7, no. 28, (Winter 1938- 39): 149.