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The Treasure (Der Schatz, 1923): GW Pabst’s compelling debut excavates the root of all evil

This review is an extended version of the programme notes I wrote for a screening of The Treasure (Der Schatz, 1923) at the 2018 Hippodrome Silent Film Festival.

– contains spoilers

Austrian director Georg Wilhelm Pabst made great films in the early 20th century. However, by the time that he died in 1967, his reputation was all but demolished – his decision to work in the German film industry during the second world war having overshadowed his earlier achievements. Underrated for decades, Pabst’s work is ripe for a reappraisal and his sophisticated and progressive silent films in particular deserve to be more widely seen.

His first film, Der Schatz (The Treasure, 1923), is a Gothic fable in the German Expressionist mode. As such, it initially seems to be out of step with Pabst’s better-known silents, including the gritty drama The Joyless Street (1925), or the iconic Pandora’s Box (1929), starring Louise Brooks, which belong to a different movement altogether: the harsh realism of Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity. In this early work there are nevertheless glimmers of Pabst’s later style, his political values and his psychological insights as well as his sympathy for his female characters and their right to assert their independence.

The Treasure (Der Schatz, 1923)
The Treasure (Der Schatz, 1923)

Pabst was born to Austrian parents in what is now part of the Czech Republic in 1885, and moved to Vienna when he was a child. He studied engineering but by the time he was 20, he realised that the theatre was his passion and he enrolled in drama school. He worked as an actor across Europe and in New York, where the poverty he witnessed, and his contact with the trade union movement, forged his socialist beliefs. Deciding to concentrate on directing, he returned to Europe in 1914 to recruit actors, but on landing in France he was arrested as an enemy alien and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp for the next four years. After the war he directed many plays, especially Expressionist dramas, before, in 1920, going to work with Carl Froelich in the German film industry. In 1922, aged 37, Pabst directed Der Schatz, his first film.

Der Schatz had been adapted by Pabst and his co-writer Willy Henning from a short story by Nobel-prize-nominated author Rudolph Hans Bartsch, published in collection called Bittersweet Love Stories in 1910. A bell-founder called Balthasar (Golem star Albert Steinrück), his wife (the brilliant Ilka Grüning, with salt-and-pepper streak and a bell-shaped dirndl skirt) and daughter Beate (Lucie Mannheim, who later made several films in Britain during the war) and an apprentice called Svetelenz (Expressionist film and stage star Werner Krauss) live in a strange house in a sinister landscape.

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