Lulu is a beautiful woman with a mysterious past. Raised by the drunkard Schigolch, a pimp and possibly her father, she becomes the mistress of a wealthy and respectable newspaper editor, Dr Ludwig Schön (Fritz Kortner). Schigolch introduces Lulu to Rodrigo Quast, who offers her a role in his variety show. Dr Schön gets engaged to his secretary, Charlotte. Hoping to keep Lulu despite his engagement, Dr Schön persuades his son Alwa to cast Lulu in his revue instead. Refusing to perform in front of Dr Schön’s fiancée, Lulu takes him backstage and seduces him at a rehearsal. Caught in the act, Dr Schön is socially disgraced and forced to marry Lulu. The Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) is also attracted to Lulu. Things get out of hand when Dr Schön ‘catches’ Lulu with Schigolch at their wedding reception. Mistaking them for lovers, Dr Schön asks Lulu to shoot herself but it is he who gets killed. On trial for murder, Lulu escapes with Schigolch’s help, with Rodrigo Quast, Countess Geschwitz and Alwa as accomplices. The Marquis Casti-Piani recognises Lulu, on the run on a train. He blackmails and lures her into his ship, a gambling den. Alwa squanders his wealth. The Marquis shows Lulu’s pictures to an Egyptian brothel-owner. Sensing a deal, Lulu tricks Geschwitz and Quast into helping her as she escapes with Schigolch and Alwa on a boat. The starving trio drift to London on Christmas Eve. Hunger drives Lulu to prostitution, leading her to Jack the Ripper, who proves to be her final undoing.
Pandora’s Box gets its title from the Greek myth in which Pandora unknowingly opens a box full of evils. Frank Wedekind’s two plays Erdgeist (The Spirit of the Earth, 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904) recast the mythical Pandora as Lulu, a woman who destroys men without intending to. The plays acquired enormous cultural significance as Germany struggled with rapid political, economic and social transformations during the Weimar Era (1919–33). Several theatrical and filmic adaptations of Wedekind’s plays emerged soon after they were published.1 Asta Nielsen starred in a 1923 silent version directed by Leopold Jessner, which was based on his own stage production of 1911. Such adaptations display a characteristic concern with modernity as a traumatic experience marked by a dangerous encounter with female Die Büchse der Pandora/Pandora’s Box (1929) 121 sexuality, a key trope of Weimar cinema. Together with Joyless Street (1925), Diary of Lost Girl (1929) and The Blue Angel (1930), Pandora’s Box is often cited as one of the most representative melodramas of the Weimar Era. Louise Brooks’ dark bobbed hair became a superlative icon of the New Woman, earning her the soubriquet of ‘the girl with the black helmet’. 2 Brooks published her recollections in several articles and interviews that revived her as a silent film star who acquired a cult following: ‘There was no Dietrich, there was no Garbo, there is only Louise Brooks’, remarked Henri Langlois in a comment that encapsulates her unrivalled appeal as an androgynous, sexually liberated flapper girl.3
However, it is important to note that such celebration did not become the norm until the late fifties. A contemporary German review wrote Brooks off rather quickly: ‘Louise Brooks cannot act. She does not suffer. She does nothing’. 4 Though unflattering, this is a telling remark in that G. W. Pabst’s Lulu does not apologise for her actions – she is unafraid to seek what she desires, whether it is food, sex or money. For Wedekind, Lulu represents an uninhibited, animalistic sensuousness while for G. W. Pabst, she represents evil’s universal appeal. Both were drawn to Lulu precisely because she defied conventional definitions of evil: it is the reason why she is so alluring. Pabst’s film was significantly different from the earlier silent version: in Brooks’ words, ‘Only five years earlier the famous Danish actress Asta Nielsen had condensed Wedekind’s play into the moral prostitute film Loulou. There was no lesbianism in it, no incest. Loulou the man-eater devoured her sex victims – and then dropped dead in an acute attack of [moral] indigestion’.5
Pabst wastes little time to begin the film with a tableau that immediately establishes Lulu’s extraordinary desirability. Lulu is the mistress of a middle-aged newspaper baron, Dr Schön. We first see her as a provocatively dressed woman who cavorts with a drunk, ageing Schigolch in a loose peignoir as he eyes her lecherously. It is clear that she has known Schigolch all her life. She sits in his lap with an easy familiarity and dances seductively in front of him as they reminisce about their past. She introduces Schigolch to the meter man outside her apartment as her ‘first patron’ in a turn of phrase that suggests that Schigolch is a pimp. As Dr Schön lets himself into their apartment, Lulu hides Schigolch as if he were a former lover.
The entire exchange sets Lulu up as an object accessible to a range of men, irrespective of age, class or kinship. Schigolch is her symbolic father but he tries to claim her like an incestuous lover. Dr Schön is old enough to be her father but makes love to Lulu by the end of the first sequence. Incest is again apparent in a scene at their wedding reception, where, enraged at finding Schigolch on their nuptial bed, Dr Schön ironically hands her a pistol and orders her to kill herself. In a visible loss of power, the pistol – clearly a phallic symbol – goes off in Lulu’s hands, knocking Dr Schön dead. The resulting image defines Lulu as a femme fatale even as it positions Alwa as an infantile Oedipal son who usurps his father’s place.
But Pabst does not leave it there. In a sequence that precedes the wedding, he is unabashed in his introduction of Countess Geschwitz as the woman who falls for Lulu. Geschwitz is the antithesis of Dr Schön’s fiancée, Charlotte, whose wispy blond hair and faraway look mark her as a sentimental icon of femininity. Geschwitz, on the other hand, is introduced as Alwa’s ‘buddy’; she is unafraid of male company. Her cropped hair mimics Lulu’s but the resemblance ends there. Unlike Lulu’s ebony, gleaming crown of hair, hers is blond and tightly curled, while her breeches and tight jacket highlight a tightly reined in masculine personality. Transfixed by Lulu as she sets eyes on her, there is no confusion about Geschwitz’s sexual desire; rather, the problem stems from her inability to express it clearly. To make matters worse, Lulu does not return her love. In Pabst’s hands, this encounter is never reduced to a self-congratulatory scene of lesbianism. Instead, it reveals the complex but ambiguous nature of Lulu’s sexual appeal, ironically noting Geschwitz’s powerlessness. Pabst layers these sequences with shots that capture Lulu’s innocence through her carefree movements and gestures; none of them openly solicit her lovers’ desire. They fall for her because of her sexual magnetism.