A significant yet easily overlooked element of G.W. Pabst's film The Joyless Street is the cinematic representation of text. In the film various crucial developments in the narrative are determined by characters' reactions to information conveyed by text. In each case text becomes a disruptive part of the scenery, a distraction which first catches the attention of a character and is then brought to focus for the viewer in the form of a close-up which isolates it from the rest of the background. It is this disruptiveness, coupled with the urgency and import of the new information conveyed by text which the film effectively uses to portray inflation-era Austria in 1923: in a world where most news is bad news, but where people are desperate for any information, even if it is incomplete and comes on a tiny slip of paper, the visual representations of text show how the lives of Austrian citizens were in constant flux and fatally hinged on the receipt of information which came from outside sources and which was outside of their control.
[...] With both Grete and Herr Rumsford now out of work, it is again a sign which decides the next shift in the Rumford family fortunes. Grete hits upon the idea of renting out a room as a source of income and immediately creates a paper sign advertising an open room. The flimsy piece of paper pretends to be no more than the announcement of a possible business transaction, but again the fleeting imagery of text belies the importance of the events which the text triggers. [...]
[...] The text serves as a missing piece in a puzzle of contradictory appearances and upon it alone is Grete's virtue and sacrifice proven; and yet its unexpected arrival in a small envelope is only a slight marker of the uncontrollable forces outside of the Rumford home and upon which the Rumfords' fortune sways precariously. The power of these written exchanges is immense, amoral, and can contain the redemption of one at the same time as it portends the ruin of another. [...]
[...] The audience is shown a close-up of the sign, which announces to all retired civil servants that if they give up receiving their pension they will get one large lump sum in return. Grete's father decides to take advantage of the sign's announcement, thinking that the lump sum will allow him to invest in stocks and escape the poverty that has been beguiling his family. But the stocks he buys turn out to be tied to a swindle arranged by speculators unknown to him and lose their value almost immediately, bringing the fortunes of the Rumford family to an even more dire state. [...]
[...] The Joyless Street portrays its entropic world-view by contrasting the innocuous images of text: letters, newspapers and announcements, with the dramatic events that follow their arrival in the narrative. Indeed, the close-up of the written text serves as an intertitle, confirming the obvious to the audience, but playing as alarm bells for characters within the film. The audience is privileged to information about the outside world which the close-up of written information contextualizes, but the characters receive only hints at the agency of these forces and are forced to take drastic action. [...]
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