Louise Brooks & "Pandora’s Box"


There’s no doubt that G.W. Pabst was a more than competent director (his The Threepenny Opera is an exceptional film), but Pandora’s Box (1929), perhaps his most famous feature, begins and ends with the fantastic Louise Brooks. After the first time I saw this picture, I immediately searched for more of her films; Prix de beauté and Diary of a Lost Girl (the latter also directed by Pabst) were two stand-outs. Still, even after these other films, I kept coming back to her Lulu. This is a great, iconic performance, certainly one of the best in all of silent cinema, and it makes Pandora's Box an extraordinary movie.

It’s fitting that Marlene Dietrich was also considered for the role. She and Brooks, particularly in this film, both exert a strong and daring sensuality, a fusion of self-aware and confident (bi?)sexuality and yet also a adolescent naiveté. This is the case in some of Dietrich’s earliest American roles: Morocco, The Devil Is a Woman, and Blonde Venus among others. Both actresses were masters at expressing assured, commanding and magnetic female attitudes and behaviors.

Another comparison that kept coming to mind while re-watching Pandora’s Box were some of the female characters created by Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina in the 1960s, especially (with somewhat similar hair and all) Vivre sa vie. There’s a playfulness and charm that comes potently across with some of the roles. The way Lulu bounces about early on, in the offices, her home and backstage, recalls Karina’s exuberant, fancy-free behavior in Pierrot le fou, Bande à part, and Une femme est une femme. Godard, being the homage-loving cinephile that he is, must have certainly turned to Brooks for inspiration here. And speaking of Godard’s female characters, a comparison could be drawn also with Jean Seberg’s Patricia in À bout de soufflé; both women have a flirtatious quality, coupled with a disturbing ability to wreck havoc. This comparison is additionally apt as Seberg was also an American actress who found her most memorable and prominent role only after being sought after and hired by a foreign filmmaker.

More than anything though, Brook’s Lulu stands as an exemplarily characterization of the neue frau blossoming in Germany during the 1920s; this was sexually liberated “new woman” emerging out of a modern, urban society where women were gaining social stature and cultural importance, where they were becoming more independent, and where they were (as was society as a whole) becoming more and more concerned with surface values, of consumerism and material possession. Lulu embodies this, particularly the latter traits, perfectly. She is all about artifice. Much of what drives her character is a selfish devotion to ownership (of power, objects and people). She wants it all. There is, at the most extreme, a hedonistic amorality, but Pabst present Lulu rather objectively. She is a product of the time and place she lives, which was teetering between prosperity and stability on the one hand and vice and destruction on the other. Lulu is sort of like a mesh of the two Marias from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, also of the period.  

All of that noted though, I am admittedly biased when it comes to watching Brooks in this film. There’s no denying that she is a destructive and troubling women—“Lulu leaves a trail of broken bodies and souls in her wake as she moves through society, not because she does not care for the individuals she meets, but because she doesn’t think at all,” writes Ian Roberts. Yet for me anyway, she is quite attractive. It’s hard to fault her as she functions in this world where (1) she doesn’t know any better and (2) she is continually pandered to. She doesn’t know “no.” It takes and apparent Jack the Ripper character to adequately deny her anything. That’s what makes this character, and thus Brooks’ performance, so rich—this complexity. She’s a very physically and mentally multifaceted woman, with layers of motivation and desire. She is like a drug, an addiction for some of the other characters. She is irresistible when she puts her wiles to work. She’s got that killer smile. Two great instances are when she and Dr. Schön are caught in their intimacy by his son and fiancé; she just looks up at their shocked faces, smiles a bit, hops up and goes on with the show. Then later, after Dr. Schön’s death, the prosecution is demanding the death sentence. She looks at the lawyer and goes from fear to the most cunning grin. Her traits, in terms of shrewdness, enticement and deceit, make her an excellent early example of the femme fatal. 

I could go on and on about Louise Brooks in this film, but simply put, I can’t imagine any other actress in this role. She is a force of nature in this film. In every way she is a knockout.

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