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Pandora’s Box, the 1929 German silent adapted from Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, is itself something of a Chinese box. Is the movie’s resident Pandora, Louise Brooks, inside the character of Lulu or is Lulu inside her?
Opening for a two-week run this Friday at Film Forum on the occasion of Brooks’s centennial, Pandora’s Box was directed by G.W. Pabst, a significant filmmaker in his own right. From the early ’20s into the early sound era, the Austrian-born director made a number of socially conscious and sexually frank movies. But ever since Pandora’s Box was “rediscovered” some decades ago, the emphasis has been on its bewitching 22-year-old star.
Seldom has an actress been more closely identified with a particular part and even less often has a single role been used to reflect on a performer’s life—not least by the performer herself. Confessing, a half-century later, that she had never been in love nor faithful to a lover, Brooks told Kenneth Tynan, “It was clever of Pabst to know even before he met me that I possessed the tramp essence of Lulu.”
Born in Kansas, a trained dancer and teenage veteran of both George White’s Scandals and the Ziegfeld Follies, Brooks needed only this movie to establish herself as an icon: Severe bangs framing anthracite eyes, a lacquered, razor-sharp bob slashing the exquisite nape of her neck, scimitar spit curls bracketing her open American smile, a spontaneous dazzler that she (not unreasonably) expects can get her anything.
Pandora’s Box begins in medias res with Lulu entertaining several admirers, including the decrepit old Schigolch (Carl Götz) and the m iddle-aged bourgeois Schön (Fritz Kortner). The former is the pimp who first turned her out, for whom Lulu retains a certain filial affection; the latter is the man who currently keeps her.
Brooks’s Lulu is the universal object of desire. Everyone competes for the warmth of her gaze and she thrives on that attention. (Pabst seldom lets his camera stray too far.) The ambitious Schön, however, is engaged to the daughter of the minister of the interior and plans to dump Lulu. Casually playing off her patron against his son Alwa (Franz Lederer), Lulu accepts a job dancing in the show Alwa is producing. Backstage opening night, she makes a scene and seduces Schön on the wardrobe room floor. Schön’s son and fiancée discover them in flagrante; few movie moments are more electrifying than Brooks’s radiant smirk of triumph.
Schön must now marry Lulu. The scene is riotous and sordid: Lulu’s onstage cavorting segues to her carnivalesque wedding. The bride tangos with her female admirer Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) and accepts a declaration of love from her new stepson even as the crazed bridegroom staggers around the apartment brandishing a revolver. Schön demands that Lulu kill herself, but in the struggle over the gun, she kills him instead. Wearing black at the trial, impassive, she is found guilty. The prosecutor calls her Pandora.
There’s more of course. Lulu escapes with Alwa, who ruins himself gambling; she herself is nearly sold to the owner of an Egyptian brothel. Mostly nocturnal and mainly interior, episodic in structure and low in character motivation, Pandora’s Box has a murky, amorphous feel. “The film is ‘atmosphere’ without content,” American critic Harry Potamkin complained. But the content is Brooks—the most enchanting of innocent monsters.
The final act finds Lulu in London; it’s Christmas Eve and the Salvation Army is parading through the fog. Lulu lives in a garret with Schigolch and Alwa and, as their sole means of support, she slips out into the night to find a john. He turns out to be Jack the Ripper. Capriciously in love (albeit with death), she gives herself to him with a smile.
In France, Pandora’s Box was re- edited so that Alwa was Schön’s secretary and the Countess became Lulu’s childhood friend. Lulu was found innocent and Jack the Ripper vanished. When the movie opened in New York, the ending was improved to have Lulu join the Salvation Army. Small wonder that The New York Times deemed it “a disconnected melodrama.” Even in Berlin, Pandora’s Box was considered a failure—a foredoomed travesty of Wedekind’s play featuring a maladroit American as Lulu.
Pabst was still looking for his Lulu when he saw Brooks playing a circus performer in Howard Hawks’s 1928 A Girl in Every Port. In vain, Pabst attempted to borrow the actress from Paramount; the studio didn’t even bother to relay the offer to Brooks until she was fired. On a whim, Brooks wired Berlin, thus heading off Pabst’s unhappy decision to cast the far worldlier Marlene Dietrich.
Clearly the American flapper was part of the movie’s PR. The highbrow British journal Close Up visited the set to report on her “mots and quaint sallies.” Then-journalist Lotte Eisner was startled to find the star reading Schopenhauer (in translation). Later, Eisner praised Brooks as a surrealist heroine, “an actress who needed no directing, but could move across the screen causing the work of art to be born by her mere presence.” Perhaps, but as Brooks realized, Pabst skillfully facilitated her behavorial performance.
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.”
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.