Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box.
G.W. Pabst’s 1929 German silent film is based on two plays by Frank Wedekind, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. Wedekind’s plays were meant as attacks on sexual repression and moral hypocrisy. The star of this film, Louise Brooks, has become something of a cult figure. When I lived in New York, I knew a guy who had a tattoo of Brooks’s face on his arm. (I remember he insisted on showing it to everyone he met. It was actually a pretty good likeness of her, I must say.)
Lulu (Louise Brooks) is the mistress of Dr. Schoen (Fritz Kortner), a newspaper publisher. She lives with Schigolch (Carl Goetz), who appears to be her father, although the exact nature of his relationship to her is never made clear. Schoen tells Lulu that he is going to marry Charlotte (Daisy D’Ora), the daughter of a high government official. Lulu is not happy about this. Schoen is unaware that his son, Alwa (Francis Lederer) has fallen in love with Lulu. Alwa’s artist friend, Anna (Alice Roberts) is also in love with Lulu. (The film indicates her lesbianism by the fact that she sometimes wears men’s ties.) Schigolch wants Lulu to start a trapeze act with Rodrigo (Krafft-Raschig), but then Alwa, at his father’s urging, invites Lulu to join his musical revue. One night, as Lulu is about to go on stage, she sees Schoen with Charlotte. Lulu angrily announces that she will not perform in front of “that woman”. Schoen takes Lulu into a back room to plead with her. They argue for a time, and then they start making love. Alwa and Charlotte walk in on them. Charlotte angrily leaves. Schoen decides at that point that he has no choice but to marry Lulu, in order to maintain his respectability, although he does not relish this prospect. “This is my execution,” he tells Alwa.
On the night of the wedding, Alwa slips away from the reception and finds Lulu in the bridal chamber. He confesses his love for her, and he begs her to run away with him. Schoen walks in on them. He is horrified by what he sees. He tries to force a gun into Lulu’s hands, telling her that she must kill herself. As they struggle, the gun goes off, killing Schoen. Lulu is then put on trial for murder. The prosecutor demands the death penalty, even though Lulu flirts with him. The judges, however, find her guilty of manslaughter and sentence her to five years in prison. Schigolch and Rodrigo set off a fire alarm, and in the ensuing confusion, they whisk Lulu away. They take her to Schoen’s home, where Alwa finds her. At first, he is incensed at her being in the place where his father died, but he is still in love with her, so he eventually gives in to her demand that he run away with her. On board the train, Lulu is seen by Marquis Casti-Piani (Michael von Newlinsky), who recognizes her, knowing she is wanted by the police. He blackmails Alwa into giving him money. He then tells Alwa that he knows of a place where he and Lulu will be safe from the police.
We next see Lulu and Alwa on board a docked ship where people gather to gamble and drink. Schigolch, Rodrigo, Anna, and Casti-Piani have all followed them there. Casti-Piani “sells” Lulu to a pimp from Cairo. He tells her that if she doesn’t go along with it, he will turn her in to the police. At roughly the same time, Rodrigo demands that Lulu give him money so he can start a new trapeze act. He, too, threatens to go to the police. Lulu turns to Schigolch for help. He devises a plan. He gets Alwa to cheat at cards, so they can get enough money to pay off Casti-Piani. He then has Lulu persuade a reluctant Anna to pretend to be in love with Rodrigo. Anna lures Rodrigo to her cabin room, where Schigolch murders him. He then ties up Anna and leaves her there. (It’s not clear why he does this. Does he dislike Anna because she is a lesbian? I suspect some scenes may be missing from the version I saw, which was released by Janus Films in 1983.) Alwa is caught cheating, which results in a riot. Someone calls the police, who promptly show up. In the confusion, Casti-Piani grabs Lulu, but she manages to escape. She finds Alwa and Schigolch, and they get away in a row boat.
The three of them go to London, where they live in poverty. Desperate for money, Lulu, at Schigolch’s suggestion, turns to prostitution. Her first client turns out to be Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl).
Wedekind’s Lulu plays are a study in how society’s ideas about sex and “respectability” ultimately victimize women from disadvantaged backgrounds. A lesser artist than Wedekind would have tried to make this point by making Lulu a saintly character, but Wedekind wants us to see life in all its rawness. (Wedekind makes the “hard argument”, as Troskyists would say.) Lulu is not a good person. She is deceitful, manipulative, and sometimes cruel. Yet one gradually realizes that the men around her are far worse. Lulu is one of the great tragic figures of world literature.
Pabst was able to get strong performances from all the actors in this film. This is particularly striking in the case of Alice Roberts, who, I’ve read, initially expressed horror at the idea of playing a lesbian. I’ve also read that when Pandora’s Box premiered in Germany, Brooks’s performance was harshly criticized. I can only assume that this was due to nationalism. (Brooks was American.) Brooks actually gives an amazing performance. She exudes so much energy, that her character actually seems like the “primal form of woman” that Wedekind melodramatically described her as. Brooks began her career as a dancer, which perhaps explains her striking feline gracefulness.
Pandora’s Box is one of the greatest films ever made. The current attacks on women’s rights have given it a renewed relevance.