1929Director: G. W. Pabst
Cast: Louise Brooks
here’s a moment in Pandora’s Box when a middle-aged, balding juror stands up to deliver a verdict to a packed courtroom. Lulu, the criminal in question, shot and killed her husband on the night of their wedding. The juror begins by comparing her to Pandora, the first woman made by Zeus, who opened the jar containing misery and evil, unleashing suffering upon mankind. He glances at Lulu, in her shimmering black dress and widow’s veil, and sees that her mouth has spread into a broad, flirty smile. He hesitates, glances at the floor, and grins at her. Then he sentences her to five years in prison.
Pandora’s Box, just released in an excellent print on Criterion Collection DVD, is a German silent film from 1929, directed by G. W. Pabst. An adaptation of the play by Frank Wedekind, it tells the story of the impulsive, naïve Lulu, a sometime dancer and showgirl who is lusted after by every man who has ever met her, and by most women too—this despite the fact that Lulu commits manslaughter, drives gamblers to financial ruin, upstages chorus lines, throws tantrums, and arranges for wives to catch their husbands cheating. Her wants are fleeting, selfish, and cheerfully frivolous; minutes after appearing to be a dutiful widow, she pulls off her veil to better study a fashion magazine. She manipulates one man into marrying her, then offers herself to his neurotic son. Oblivious to the chaos she causes, Lulu never apologizes, never hesitates to act on impulse, and never once feels guilt or remorse. And neither the characters on screen nor the viewers in the audience ever stop wanting her attention.
After seeing her in a bit part in Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port, Pabst cast American actress Louise Brooks as the amoral, childlike Lulu. It would prove the role of a lifetime—maybe the role of the century—and Brooks took it and ran. Few actresses have created an image as iconic as Brooks in her Lulu get-up: the milk-white skin, the plunging necklines and flapper skirts, the flawless curtain of bobbed, jet-black hair. Lulu isn’t simply beautiful; she’s supernatural. Brooks projects more than uninhibited female sexuality—she seems to capture all the established roles of femininity. At times girlish and at times womanly, Lulu is both innocent and knowing, both mother and whore.
Pabst makes use of the close-up (only a novelty in 1927) to fill the screen with her wide-open, winking face, allowing Brooks to avoid the normal styles of silent acting in favor of something subtler, more human. Though her work in the film was overlooked at the time, it was eventually acclaimed by critics in the ’50s, who recognized Brooks’ pioneering, scene-stealing naturalism, and proclaimed it some of the finest screen acting of all time. French critic Henri Langlois famously remarked: “There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Brooks!” Only twenty-two when she played Lulu, Brooks would retire shortly thereafter, which makes sense; Lulu would be as hard to follow as the Mona Lisa.
Rumor has it Pabst was infatuated with Louise Brooks, and if he wasn’t, he might as well have been. Wedekind’s play is ambiguous in its feelings about female sexuality—in the wrong hands, the work could seem sophomoric, melodramatic, even misogynistic. But Pabst manages the difficult trick of confining this allegorical story to a naturalistic framework, while still allowing shadowy elements of expressionism and surrealism to creep in.
Today the film is a classic of the silent era, but I don’t think it would be famous if Lulu were played by anyone else, for in the end Pandora’s Box is less a traditional film than a record of the way one woman moves, of the interplay between the sharpness of her eyebrows and the curve of her mouth. Throughout the movie, actress and camera are close as lovers. Lulu is the center of every shot, even when she’s just a face in the crowd. No matter what she’s doing—lounging in a doorframe, dancing the Charleston, or smirking in close-up—the screen carries a thrilling, erotic charge. This is not a movie about sex—this is sex. What makes it art is not its content, but its sly, ironic form: this is a study of the male gaze, of the way images turn women into commodities, of the money-for-sex transaction that takes place between the filmmaker, the actress, and the paying spectator. Standing inside this triangle is Louise Brooks, who knows what she’s there for. She’s there to convince you, the audience, to fall in love with an image—and she does it brilliantly, while still standing outside that image, and giving the finger to the whole affair. No wonder she’s smiling.
Pandora’s Box is now available on DVD.
By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-02-16