Female Trouble

The bewitching Louise Brooks lights up G.W. Pabst's blue-ribbon silent

Pabst made no effort to contain the resentment many felt at the prospect of this outlander who spoke only English, playing "our German Lulu." The director was more than clever in casting a cornfed ex-chorine. (In Voluptuous Panic, his erotic history of Weimar Berlin, theater historian Mel Gordon notes that the late-'20s media phenomenon the Germans called girlkultur—revolving around sexually independent young women—was largely derived from the Ziegfeld model.)

Brooks's Lulu was a new kind of femme fatale—generous, manipulative, heedless, blank, democratic in her affections, ambiguous in her sexuality. This exotic singularity was compounded by the aroused hostility the actress experienced on the set. Pabst wanted the men in the cast to feel Brooks's skin and get her under theirs. Schön desperately snubbed her; Kortner, she recalled, "like everyone else on the production," felt she "had cast some blinding spell over Pabst." Typically, Brooks praised Pabst for employing Gustav Diessl, the only man on the set she found sexually attractive, as her fatal final lover.

Shockingly receptive to Berlin's Weimar vibe, Brooks was the real Sally Bowles. The bar at her hotel, she would write, "was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the street outside. On the corner stood the girls in boots, advertising flagellation. Actors' agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian Quarter. Racetrack touts at the Hoppegarten arranged orgies for groups of sportsmen. The nightclub Eldorado displayed an enticing line of homosexuals dressed as women. At the Maly, there was a choice of feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians."

Veiled eroticism: Brooks
photo: Film Forum/Photofest
Veiled eroticism: Brooks


Pandora's Box
Directed by G.W. Pabst
Kino, June 16 through 29, Film Forum

Brooks reports that upon learning she "had been investigating Berlin's night life till three every morning," Pabst reined her in. She made a few more movies post-Pandora, including Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl, before fading from view to find her voice as a writer. There would never be another Lulu—nor will there ever be.

Film Forum's 35mm print is new but like all versions I've seen, slightly dark. Steve Sterner's deft and energetic piano accompaniment (live at 7:15 and weekend matinees) helps the narrative cohere and pushes the momentum.

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