Indeed, Pabst cast the very American Brooks in the by-then very German character of Lulu because of her candid and unaffected portrayal of sexuality. He believed that the overexposed 122 Die Büchse der Pandora/Pandora’s Box (1929) Marlene Dietrich would reduce Lulu’s part ‘to a burlesque’. 6 While he was very well respected in Germany, Pabst was not as well-known in Hollywood. Paramount immediately turned down his request to loan Brooks for Pandora’s Box as she was still under contract. It was only when Brooks quit the studio over a salary dispute that Pabst was finally able to cast her. Disgust at the American studio system led Brooks to foreign waters – like Garbo, Brooks’ gay personal life (in both senses of the word) and iconoclasm fuelled intense gossip about her bisexuality.
Brooks’ collaboration with Pabst was riddled by a tense relationship that carries over into Brooks’ alluring portrayal of Lulu’s destructive impact on whosoever falls in love with her. In fact, Brooks claims that she never acted for the role, but just ‘played herself’. 7 Trained in the Denishawn dance academy, Brooks was graceful to a fault. Pabst let her movements and her costume do the acting, a device so effective that contemporary audiences rightfully felt that she ‘did nothing’. 8 Indeed, Brooks’ performance of Lulu can be seen as an allegory of the film star’s irresistible visual appeal. Brooks essentially plays herself when she acts as the impossibly attractive showgirl who revels in being seen. Pabst exemplifies this quality in a sequence where Lulu rehearses for Alwa’s revue: everyone wants to look at her, a feature that is at the core of a cinematic image that is irrepressibly linked to feminine beauty.9
Above all, Pandora’s Box documents a world thrown into sudden ideological crisis and moral flux with no secure ground to fall back on. Formally, it is dominated by indoor shots that evoke a sense of unremitting claustrophobia and entrapment, with few or almost no outdoor sequences. Interiors are bathed in high-contrast lighting that is striking in its avoidance of intimacy: close-ups conceal more than they reveal. Visually, it is pervaded by harsh, glamorous, brightly lit but cold surfaces. Exact details are generally excluded – the camera moves restlessly between disconnected objects whose meaning is not immediately apparent. Looks between Lulu and Schigolch, Lulu and Dr Schön, Lulu and Alwa, Lulu and Geschwitz rarely culminate in full eye contact, rendering cinematic meaning incomplete. The spectator is left searching for a point of contact or identification – a sequence on an open boat is shrouded in mist and fog; a scene on the train is so tightly framed that actors have barely any room to move. The camera teases by refusing to deliver what it promises: should viewers sympathise with Lulu or should they chastise her? Is Lulu responsible for her ruin?
There is no final answer: instead, Lulu and Dr Schön are often framed against mirrors or paintings that distort, dwarf or overwhelm their presence. Pabst holds an unflattering mirror to his characters, singling out the worst for biting ridicule, yet his style refuses to conform to a traditional melodramatic style that polarises good and evil. His approach cannot be reduced to a sympathetic identification with any single moral exemplar. Lulu emerges as an enigma that is simultaneously attractive and repelling. Pabst refuses to sentimentalise her – this is apparent in the final segment where she meets the fearful Jack the Ripper. The lighting is soft but unrelentingly mysterious and threatening. For the first time, Lulu openly solicits a client, saying that she ‘likes him’. Instead of portraying this episode as her comeuppance, Pabst treats it as the final expression of Lulu’s love, conflating death with ecstasy, fulfilment, and rest. Lulu does not suffer.
1. Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Lulu and The Meter Man: Louise Brooks, G. W. Pabst and Pandora’s Box’, in Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary, London, Routledge, 2000, pp. 259–92, p. 264 in particular.
2. Kenneth Tynan, ‘The Girl with the Black Helmet’, originally published in the New Yorker (11 June 1979). Reprinted in a booklet included with the DVD compilation of Pandora’s Box (Criterion, 2006), pp. 20–73.
3. Louise Brooks, ‘Pabst and Lulu’, originally published in Sight and Sound (Summer 1965). Reprinted in Pandora’s Box (Criterion, 2006), pp. 74–93. See Looking for Lulu (Directed by Hugh Munro Neeley, 1988) included in Pandora’s Box (Criterion, 2006).
4. Quoted in Tynan, ‘The Girl with the Black Helmet’, p. 46.
5. Brooks, ‘Pabst and Lulu’, p. 76. Die Büchse der Pandora/Pandora’s Box (1929) 123
6. Brooks, ‘Pabst and Lulu’, p. 78.
7. Tynan, ‘The Girl with the Black Helmet’, p. 32.
8. Quoted in Tynan, ‘The Girl with the Black Helmet’, p. 46.
9. For a detailed discussion of this point, see Mary Ann Doane, ‘The Erotic Barter: Pandora’s Box (1929)’, in Eric Rentschler (ed.), The Films of G.W. Pabst: An Extraterritorial Cinema, New Brunswick and London, Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 62–79.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Germany. Production Company: Nero Film. Director: Georg Wilhelm Pabst. Screenwriter: Ladislaus Vajda. Cinematographer: Günther Kampf. Art Directors: Andrei Andreiev and Gottlieb Hesch. Cast: Louise Brooks (Lulu), Fritz Kortner (Dr Ludwig Schön), Carl Goetz (Schigolch), Francis Lederer (Alwa Schön), KrafftRaschig (Rodrigo Quast), Michael V. Newlinsky (Marquis Casti-Piani), Gustav Diesel (Jack the Ripper), Siegfried Arno (Stage Manager), Alice Roberts (Countess Geschwitz) and Daisy D’ora (Charlotte Marie Adelaide).]
Lotte H. Eisner, ‘Pabst and the Miracle of Louise Brooks: Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, Censorship and Pabst’s Realism’, in The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1956, pp. 295–308.
Amelie Hastie, ‘Louise Brooks, Star Witness’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 36, No. 3, Spring 1997, pp. 3–24.
Noah Isenberg, Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era, New York, Columbia University Press, 2009.
Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, Revised edition, 2004.
Carrie J. Preston, ‘Posing Modernism: Delsartism in Modern Dance and Silent Film’, Theatre Journal, Vol. 61, No. 2, May 2009, pp. 213–33.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.