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Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), Louise Brooks came from Kansas. Dorothy rode a tornado. Brooks was one. Intelligent, temperamental, quick on the trigger, at the forefront of liberated behavior for women between the wars, she made 24 films between 1925 and 1928, all but three made in Hollywood. But it was in Germany that she starred in the film that transported her to immortality, Pandora's Box (1929), for Georg Wilhelm Pabst. After combing through scores of candidates in search of the quintessential femme fatale - Lulu -- Pabst's instincts told him he had what he was looking for when Brooks caught his eye in Howard Hawks's A Girl in Every Port (1928). Negotiations dragged on, then happened fast. When Brooks quarreled with Paramount studio head B.P. Schulberg and quit, Pabst got a cablegram informing him of Brooks's availability while Marlene Dietrich was sitting in Pabst's office waiting to sign a contract. Scarcely did he meet Brooks at the Berlin railroad station with an armful of roses and begin rehearsing that he realized how right his instinct was. Brooks was, and remains, a lulu of a Lulu.
Pabst, who soon afterward filmed Brooks in the barely less potent Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), later wrote that Dietrich would have been all wrong for Lulu, that Dietrich's seductiveness was stamped with too knowing a look, that her performance would have seemed a burlesque (not that Dietrich stayed down - she went on to make The Blue Angel  and never looked back). Dietrich seemed a type. Brooks was extraordinary and unique. The sexual power she projected seemed utterly unselfconscious. She could stretch out on a settee, languid as a cat, with the best of them. But Brooks came to film from dance -- not just Broadway hoofing, but the expressive modern dance of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. She moved with quickness and spontaneity, bringing a feline immediacy to Lulu's hedonism. Brooks, later to become a witty, insightful memoirist, wrote that she felt sorry for trained actresses who froze in front of the camera. Pabst, something of a choreographer as a director, was delighted to discover Brooks's aptitude for dance. He attuned himself to her way of working, made sure Lulu expressed a lot of what she was in movement, made sure to keep Brooks on target by never giving her more than one emotion to play per scene, infusing it with movement and sometimes vertiginous editing. Brooks's Lulu seems elemental, never calculated, a force of nature (except in one funny scene of backstage opening night tumult -- never bettered! -- in which Brooks's showgirl stages a tantrum to get her way with a wealthy newspaper publisher and divert him from marriage to a respectable bourgeois fiance to marrying her instead).
With her black lacquered bobbed hair, ending in sword's-point spit curls beneath her prominent cheekbones, Brooks's Lulu seemed a sexual warrior, an Amazon, sending women by the thousands to their hairdressers for a Lulu makeover. Her shiny hair seems a helmet, dominating each frame in which she appears. Pabst often crops her close-ups, making her embodiment of modernity seem even more spontaneous. Pandora's Box, based on a pair of plays by Frank Wedekind, also the source of Alban Berg's Expressionistic opera, Lulu, must have hit Germany -- rigidly paternalistic on the outside, shaky on the inside after losing World War I and sensing the crumbling of the old order -- like a depth bomb, with its eruption of female sexuality coming on the heels of a nationwide male identity crisis, as Germany dissolved from the bourgeois rigidities and repressions of Bismarck and the Kaiser that made Wedekind so notorious to the anything-goes sexuality of Weimar Berlin. With her wide face and huge eyes, Brooks's direct gaze into the camera cements her authority. More than Clara Bow, or any of the iconic sex kitten flappers of the 1920s, Brooks is the quintessential embodiment of the liberated libido, routing any lingering notion of Germany as Fatherland.
Moving with darting quickness, she destroys most of the men who come near her, starting with the publisher (Fritz Kortner) who caves in and plummets downhill. "You're next," he prophetically tells his sensitive but weak son (Franz Lederer). A mannishly-costumed designer who also happens to be an influential countess (Alice Roberts) has no better luck, despite film's first lesbian dance scene. Brooks's forward-tilting head, with its cropped hair emphasizing her powerful neck and predatory body language, consumes the men in her life in a way that seems to come naturally, unthinkingly. She's an amoral killer because her actions are guided from an unerringly efficient subterranean level. She's quite passive, despite her high spirits. She hasn't a particle of the coyness or premeditation of the usual sex goddess. She's as terrifying as she is because she's as innocent as she is. Pleasure-oriented and living for the moment, she doesn't have passions, she has impulses, and ultimately they destroy her.
After Lulu reduces a string of men to rubble, Pabst, the social critic who also filmed the Brecht-Weill version of their play The Threepenny Opera (1931), closes the film with mordant irony. It could not have been accidental that the film's only tenderness and real eroticism come in the last scene with Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl) in a fogbound London garret after Lulu flees a floating gambling den and prostitution parlor where she is sold by one pimp to another, who promptly resells her, as the publisher's son loses their money at the gambling tables. When on Christmas Eve the now-impoverished and hungry Lulu propositions Jack, and he says he has no money, she throws greed and self-preservation to the winds and says, "Come just the same - I like you." Jack, fighting his impulses, throws his knife away. But when he sees a sharp bread knife on Lulu's table, he reverts to form.
The twin plot pillars on which the film rests are a pair of killings that follow an embrace. Today, it would be Lulu who'd kill Jack the Ripper. But in 1928, whenPandora's Box was filmed, the world was not ready to accept the atomic bomb of women's sexuality, and so Lulu is dispatched in the manner of a morality play, descending from the Bauhaus chic of the deluxe apartment where her rich lover has installed her, as she and her little entourage flee the consequences of the publisher handing Lulu a loaded gun and telling her to shoot herself to save his reputation - one of the great wrong moves in cinema history! In neither death scene, by the way, do we see the killing. In the first, shot over the publisher's shoulder, we see a puff of gun smoke seem to gently blow him and Lulu apart as he staggers backward and dies. The fatal embrace with Jack the Ripper is similarly filmed over his shoulder. We don't see the stabbing. We see Lulu's fingers, which had closed around his neck in embrace, slowly loosen and fall away as she expires. In between is a sort of Hogarthian descent, as she moves from a Paris-bound train to a starkly lit, claustrophobic pleasure boat, and finally to the Dickensian garret where she's snuffed out, paying the price for being a woman unapologetically sexually self-determining, one iconic archetype of destruction brought down by another.
About that entourage: one can only admire Pabst's diplomatic (and linguistic!) skills as he cajoled and instructed the skittish Belgian actress Roberts in lesbian demeanor, repeatedly defused Kortner, who openly disliked the free-spirited Brooks, and hired musicians to play tango music to keep Brooks in the mood between takes. The Czech actor playing the publisher's weak son, Lederer - born Frantisek, changed to Franz in Germany, and again to Francis in the U.S. -- went from embodying exhausted, bankrupt German manhood in Pandora's Box to enjoy a long, prosperous Hollywood career, which is more than Brooks did, leaving Hollywood in 1938 after a string of mostly mediocre films there. Pabst treated Brooks as an artist - which was more than Hollywood could bring itself to do. There is no record of what Pabst said, if anything, to Carl Goetz, who plays the debauched pimp, Schigolch, who introduced Brooks to love for sale and never let her stray far from it, invoking the borrowed authority of a father figure. Goetz plays Schigolch as an evil dwarf, tumescent with corruption. The only time Pandora's Box gets squirmy is when she jumps into his lap for a cuddle.
Although she went broke, at one time working as a salesgirl in a Manhattan department store, and never worked in film during the last 47 years of her life (1906-1985), Brooks had the last laugh twice over, wittily skewering Hollywood's ruling philistines in her autobiographical essay collection, Lulu in Hollywood, after having enjoyed belated worldwide acclaim, launched by the critic Lotte Eisner, Andre Langlois' Louise Brooks revival series at the Paris Cinematheque, and above all James Card's ongoing supportiveness at Eastman House in Rochester. There, Brooks, decades after making them, belatedly saw for the first time Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl in their entirety. Few are elevated to film's pantheon on the strength of a single film. But Brooks, in Pandora's Box, is one of them.
Producer: Heinz Landsmann; Seymour Nebenzal (uncredited)
Director: Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Screenplay: Joseph Fleisler (titles, uncredited); Ladislaus Vajda (scenario); Frank Wedekind (plays "Erdgeist" and "Die Bchse der Pandora"); Georg Wilhelm Pabst (uncredited)
Cinematography: Gnther Krampf
Art Direction: Andrejew, Hesch; Ern Metzner (uncredited)
Music: Stuart Oderman, William P. Perry (both uncredited)
Film Editing: Joseph Fleisler (uncredited)
Cast: Louise Brooks (Lulu), Fritz Kortner (Dr. Ludwig Schn), Franz Lederer (Alwa Schn), Carl Goetz (Schigolch), Krafft-Raschig (Rodrigo Quast), Alice Roberts (Grfin Geschwitz - Countess Anna Geschwitz), Daisy d'Ora (Charlotte Marie Adelaide v. Zarnikow - braut Dr. Schns - Dr. Schn's Bride), Gustav Diessl (Jack the Ripper), Michael v. Newlinsky (Marquis Casti-Piani), Siegfried Arno (Der inspizient - the instructor).
by Jay Carr
Lulu in Hollywood, by Louise Brooks, Knopf, 1982; (expanded edition, University of Minnesota Press, 2000)
The Haunted Screen, Lotte H. Eisner, University of California Press, second edition, 2008Louise Brooks, by Barry Paris, Knopf, 1989
The Films of G. W. Pabst, edited by Eric Rentschler, essay by Mary Ann Doane, Rutgers University Press, 1990
Variety review, December 11, 1929