not in our stars, but in ourselves
“There is no Dietrich. There is no Garbo. There is only Brooks.”
– Henri Langlois
No kidding, Henri. There are a great many reasons to see G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), but chief among them has to be Louise Brooks in her signature role: Lulu. Maneater, innocent, victim, destroyer. In some ways, she’s the negative image of Marilyn Monroe’s famous persona: potently attractive, seemingly guileless, but still aware that the only way she can get anything is to rely on the chemical reaction that she causes in others. I don’t know that such women really exist outside of male writers’ imaginations, but they’re fascinating to watch.
Based on Frank Wedekind’s Erdgeist plays, Pandora’s Box is basically a melodrama about Lulu’s ability to destroy everyone who loves her. The film begins with her in a stylish apartment supplied by her wealthy lover, Dr. Schön (Fritz Kortner). He tells her that he is going to marry someone respectable soon, and he can’t continue to sleep with her. Lulu doesn’t like that. Neither do Schön’s son, Alwa (Franz Lederer, captain of the U.S.S. Dreamboat), and Alwa’s friend, Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). Both of them are madly in love or lust with Lulu, and like that she’s around so often. Creepy. Eventually, Schön finds that he has to marry Lulu, and things go downhill from there, ending up with a destitute Lulu being killed by Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl) in London. However, as Brooks rather impishly wrote, this may have been the greatest possible ending for Lulu: “It is Christmas Eve, and she is about to receive the gift that has been her dream since childhood. Death by a sexual maniac.” It has to be said that she seems not to put up all that much of a fight.
I will make it perfectly clear: Pandora’s Box is why I love silent cinema so much. I am fortunate enough to have the Criterion Collection DVD, and the restoration of the print is such that you can see the lustre and gleam of the film itself. You can almost imagine how smooth and quicksilvery it would have felt in your hands. There are probably talkies with that same tactile dimension to the film itself, but I struggle to name one off the top of my head. (You members of the rabble are welcome to debate in the comments.) Then there are the actors. Norma Desmond wasn’t just whistlin’ “Dixie” when she said that they didn’t need dialogue because they had faces then. (More of her next week. Get excited!) Kortner out-Oliviers Olivier, with his monocle and severely arched eyebrow. Lederer uses his extraordinarily expressive eyes to show everything from fear to hope to lust to despair – sometimes, nearly all at once. And of course, there’s Brooksie.
Her performance wasn’t especially well received at the time, since audiences were perhaps more accustomed to “the eye-rolling style of European silent acting. Lulu the man-eater devoured her sex victims…and then dropped dead in an acute attack of indigestion” – as Brooks described the performance of Asta Nielsen, who had played the role a few years earlier in a sudsy melodramatic version of the play. Now, however, she’s slightly more appreciated. Lotte H. Eisner said she “needed no directing, but could move across the screen causing the work of art to be born by her mere presence.” Ado Kyrou said that she was “the perfect apparition, the dream woman, the being without whom the cinema would be a poor thing. She is much more than a myth; she is a magical presence, a real phantom, the magnetism of the cinema.” Our friend Langlois, co-founder and former director of the Cinémathèque Française, rhapsodized:
As soon as she takes the screen, fiction disappears along with art, and one has the impression of being present at a documentary. The camera seems to have caught her by surprise, without her knowledge. She is the intelligence of the cinematic process, the perfect incarnation of that which is photogenic; she embodies all that the cinema rediscovered in its last years of silence: complete naturalness and complete simplicity.
Does she ever. That’s exactly why she’s so perfect as Lulu, too. Erdgeist means “Earth Spirit.” She is meant to be a force of nature, rather than a sophisticate or a femme fatale. Brooks’s naturalistic acting, so rare a thing in most of silent cinema, therefore stuns with its irrefutability. She wasn’t exactly playing herself, but she was Lulu.
Pandora’s Box is an extraordinary film. The alchemy between director and star, between star and role, is beyond compare. From the last days of both silent cinema and the Weimar Republic, we have this gorgeous swan song – and aren’t we lucky.
P.S. What’s that? An unrelated photo of Franz “Hot Slice” Lederer? Well, if you absolutely insist.