Film review, by Jason Day, of the infamous silent movie about a sexual innocent who destroys everyone who adores her in the pursuit of pleasure. Starring Louise Brooks and directed by G.W. Pabst.
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Lulu (Louise Brooks) has everything. She is young, beautiful and loved and lusted after by everyone around her. Carefree and with only the slightest acknowledgment of the hurt she can cause she dances, drinks and makes love with Olympic indifference and abandon. Marrying her wealthy publisher lover (Fritz Kortner) sets her and those in her immediate orbit on the path to destruction, as all are blinded by her allure.
Review, by Jason Day
There is no other occupation in the world that so closely resembled enslavement as the career of a film star.
Today, Louise Brooks is chiefly remembered for two things. The first was dazzling the world (albeit briefly) with her beauty, smile, body and sexually frank screen personality in a series of motion pictures, first in Hollywood and then, fleetingly, Germany.
The second was her cataclysmic fall from grace after that trip to Germany. With a reputation for being difficult and openly expressing her loathing for the Hollywood ‘scene’, Brooks refused roles that could have made her career in the nascent sound era (The Public Enemy, 1931 which made Jean Harlow a star), was labelled as having a poor voice, lost her Paramount contract, was forced into accepting lesser roles at lesser studios and, eventually, finished her film career at the age of 30.
That decision to buck the Hollywood system would, in time, turn out to be Brooks’ most savvy career move. After a second lifetime as a kept woman, courtesan and, finally, a shop girl at Macy’s department store, Brooks was rediscovered by audiences after esteemed critic Henri Langlois famously declared “There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!”
With the world now awakened to her cinematic achievements and a penchant for spinning a good line, she declined to pen her memoirs and instead wrote around her life with a series of penetratingly critical articles about Hollywood based on the people she knew, loved and worked with.
For anyone interested in Hollywood history during the ‘Star Era’, her writing about the methodical destruction of Lillian Gish to ‘create’ the actress Greta Garbo is lucid and devastating.
This final career, as the occasional writer, was the one that sustained her in her later years but it is her dazzling tour de force from director G.W. Pabst that we see why she was one of the most brilliant of silent cinema actors.
She is beguiling, bewitching and brilliant as the carefree Lulu, portraying her as Pabst instructed, an innocent child of pleasure wrapped up in the effect she has on people.
Brooks presents the human incarnation of the Weimar period in German history, those fleetingly few years, centred in Berlin, where freewheeling frivolity was the order the day and night. Bookended between the privations of the Treaty of Versailles and the puritan strictures of National Socialism, Germany led the way both culturally and sexually…briefly
Drink, drugs, sex cafes and revues, prostitutes of all varieties, ‘Anything Goes’ was not just a lyric to a Cole Porter song, it was a way of life in Deutschland (in what might be the first ever open expression of lesbianism in the cinema, Lulu dances closely with a besotted woman).
Brooks’ delightful, creamy flesh is on display in various revealing garments throughout the film, mirrors the outside world. It surrounds a body and personality that appears to dance at all times (Brooks was a trained and highly accomplished dancer, pre-movies).
Even in Lulu’s apartment, there is a symbol of her languid treatment of those who worship her – a huge painting of her dressed as Pierrot, the haunted clown of ancient comedy and pantomime. A perfect metaphor then, for as she smiles, dances and japes around, Lulu’s own make-up hides a multitude of pain and sins.
The physical differences between Lulu, ravishing, young, gay and dressed in a floaty and revealing white dress and her aged, crook-backed abuser and procurer Schigolch, attired in the shabbiest, ill-fitting suit are marked. Perhaps this is symbolic of how the power dynamic between them has altered: he lusts after her, she seemingly has forgotten he raped her and treats him like a beloved Grandpa, kissing him furiously.
Pabst took the by then clunky, melodramatic Expressionism of German cinema by the throat and shook it up with his ‘New Objectivity’ style of filming, for a post-WWI Germany reeling with hyperinflation.
Expressionism was an exaggeration of external things, such as an actor’s movements, the set designs, the costumes were exaggerated to represent the inner turmoil or issues of the story or characters or society itself.
With ‘New Objectivity’, think more of an early ‘Loachian’ style of cinema, one that dealt with sober, everyday topics of social discussion, shorn of the artifice and ‘out there’ feel of Expressionism. As Pabst once said, film was to provide an ‘x-ray’ of the human condition.
The version of Pandora’s Box I first saw was on DVD and had German inter-titles and Italian subtitles of those. Thanks to Pabst’s clear and understandable style, I never once lost track of what was going on.
Brooks would make one more film with Pabst, Diary of a Lost Girl which was released the following year. After one more European film, Prix de Beaute made in France, Brooks would reluctantly travel back to Los Angeles and set in motion the destruction of this particular career.
Thank heaven for that.
Cast & credits
Director: G.W. Pabst. 2hr 14mins (134 mins) Nero Film. (PG)
Producers: Heinz Landsmann.
Writer: Ladislaus Vajda.
Camera: Gunther Krampf.
Music: Stuart Oderman (1986 issue), Peer Raben (1997 issue).
Sets: Andrej Andrejew, Gottlieb Hesch, Erno Metzner.
Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer, Fritz Kortner, Alice Roberts, Carl Goetz, Krafft-Raschig, Gustav Diessl, Daisy d’Ora, Siegfried Arno.