not in our stars, but in ourselves
14/52: A movie with an actress you love
“There is no Dietrich. There is no Garbo. There is only Brooks.”
– Henri Langlois
You said it, Henri. Others have said it before, and said it much more eloquently, but something about Louise Brooks – in Pandora’s Box, at least – is thrillingly vital. Even though she seems to embody so much of the 1920s (bob haircut, sleek and boyish figure, jazzy dance moves), she also seems to be completely current, completely of-the-moment. No doubt, G.W. Pabst had something to do with that – if only in that he recognized her immense charisma and understood how to film and utilize it – but really, this movie is all Brooksie’s. Everything else is just details.
Based on Frank Wedekind’s Erdgeist plays, Pandora’s Box is about Lulu (Brooks). She’s the mistress of Dr. Schön (Fritz Kortner), an older newspaper editor who hates the gossip surrounding his affair with Lulu, but who finds her impossible to give up or resist. An old “patron” (that is to say, pimp) of Lulu’s, Schigolch (Carl Goetz), stops by. When Schön stops by as well, to let Lulu know that he’s going to marry a young society girl, he’s disgusted to see her “entertaining” another man. Lulu goes to visit Alwa (Franz Lederer), her best friend and Schön’s son. Like every man who crosses her path, Alwa is madly in lust (no one ever suggests it’s really love, or that there’s any difference between the two) with Lulu. Schön orders her out of his home, and advises Alwa to cast her in a big musical revue he’s working on. Alwa asks why his father doesn’t simply marry Lulu, rather than his society bride; and Schön warns his son to stay away from “that woman” – she’s bad news. Backstage at the revue, Schön is stupid enough to show up with his fiancée. Lulu doesn’t like this one bit, so she causes a scene: such a scene, in fact, that Schön’s fiancée leaves him to Lulu. Reluctantly, he marries her. At their wedding reception, attended by many who want Lulu to themselves – including Alwa, Schigolch, a bodybuilder, and the tragic Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) – Lulu and Schön have a huge argument, during which Schön tells his new wife to kill herself. In the ensuing struggle – with him trying to force the gun into her hand, and her resisting, she shoots him. On trial for manslaughter, Alwa testifies on her behalf (racked with guilt and something else), but she’s found guilty. Schigolch manages to have a fire alarm pulled, so that Lulu can escape from the courthouse, and she returns to Schön’s home. When Alwa returns home as well, she seduces him and convinces him that they should leave together right away. Their tortured path (with Schigolch in tow) leads them from a comfortably appointed train to a grim casino-boat to a shoddy little London garret apartment – where Lulu meets her end, at the hands of Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl).
While this may not have been Wedekind’s precise intent in the original plays, or even Pabst’s intention in this film, it occurred to me that Pandora’s Box is very much about the destructive power of the patriarchy. Not of Lulu herself: she is a force of nature, an irresistible magnet, a gorgeous nymph who loves to have a good time with anyone who’s available. All the destruction, all the pain, all the struggle, comes from men’s attempts to possess and control her. Whether it’s Schön’s “sexual hatred” (as Brooks herself put it), Alwa’s sad-sack Friendzone routine, or Schigolch’s hustling to profit from her beauty and allure, the men in her life are always trying to diminish her power. She allows them to use her in their various schemes and dreams – but only up to a point. That point is the point where she would need to cede control of herself to one man – and she refuses, in each instance, to do so. By the time she meets Jack (a very sweet and mild-mannered serial killer in this iteration), she’s the only one pulling her weight, but she also basically ignores Alwa and Schigolch. Their efforts to control and use her landed her in this awful situation, but they won’t control her anymore. She goes out to pick up a john against both their wishes – because she knows they just want her to do what they want, not because they actually care about her welfare. And really, Jack is the nicest to her of anyone in the film. He doesn’t even want to kill her. He just wants to snuggle, and kiss under the mistletoe, and then he happens to notice a knife on the table. He feels almost as bad about doing it as Lulu must feel when he does it – unlike all the other men up to this point, who pity themselves and take from Lulu without ever considering giving or sharing in return.
This is one of many reasons Pandora’s Box seems to be much more modern than its 1929 release date would seem to indicate. The other is the camerawork itself. Pabst and his cinematographer, Günther Krampf, have created a gorgeously fluid visual language for the film. It doesn’t feel staged, or false, or even like it’s from another time. I can’t remember the exact quote or the source thereof, but I read Pandora’s Box as having a “documentary” feel to it – and it does. This is the kind of cinéma vérité all those ’60s birds were dreaming of. It’s the way the film is shot (and to appreciate this in full, please do yourself a favor, and watch only the Criterion Collection restoration), and the way it’s acted as well. Pabst was famously (or notoriously) adept at manipulating his actors, at utilizing their real-life personalities and enmities and attractions for the purposes of his films. Kortner disliked Brooks intensely; hence the palpable nature of Schön’s rage when he confronts Lulu. Brooks had a favorite dress; Pabst ordered it to be torn and soiled for her to wear during her last scenes set in London, to lend Lulu’s destitution an additional air of personal despair. Pabst knew that, even if audiences didn’t know that Brooks was naked under her bathrobe while she was filming the post-courtroom scene with Lulu seducing Alwa, Lederer would know – and it would show onscreen.
If you see this for no other reason, however, see it for Brooksie. She’s fierce. She’s flawless. Read some of her writing, on the subject of Pandora’s Box as well as the good old days in Hollywood and Berlin. You should love her, if you don’t already.
Side note: Lederer is FINE. Fine as hell. I think I’ve talked about this before – but yeah.