The rise and inevitable fall of an amoral but naive young woman whose insouciant eroticism inspires lust and violence in those around her.
Walk into any Halloween store or costume shop and you’ll likely find a section devoted to vintage fashion styles. If you come across a flapper dress it often comes with a shortly cropped wig: the bob, which was all the rage in the 1920s. Long before Jennifer Aniston made the Rachel haircut famous, another actress was making her hairstyle trendy. Louise Brooks (no relation to the author) was famous, among other things, for her bobbed do which could be found in the nude pin-ups that young men plastered on their bedroom walls or in the movie magazines where she was a popular interest of gossip. The boys wanted her and the girls wanted to be her.
But for all her fame as an actress, few people saw her films. Often times the films were banned for their licentious depictions, other times the films were so severely censored that it ruined any box office success. But one film stands out above all the others in Brooks’ career which critics would eventually hail as one of the great performances of the silent era. At the time, however, the critics were not charmed by her “naturalistic” acting style and, in Germany, lambasted the film; American critics didn’t even have the concern to review it.
Pandora’s Box, directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, was a German film adapted from two plays, Earth Spirit & Pandora’s Box, both by Frank Wedekind. As most will recognize, Pandora is a reference to the mythological Greek Eve who, through curiosity or otherwise, opens a box of evil unto the world; upon closing the box again, she traps inside hope. Lulu, our protagonist (as played by Brooks), is in many ways a modern version of Pandora, unleashing evil onto whomever she crosses paths with and encounters little reason to expect a happy ending to her life’s story. Almost every vice and sin known to man shows up in this film, from prostitution to slavery to gambling to murder and somehow Lulu is mixed up in all of it.
It is hard not to be charmed by Brooks’ performance and, for that, hard not to be captivated by Lulu herself. She is a beautiful woman who exuberates with a mix of playful innocence and open sensuality. When we first meet her, she is handling the mundane task of paying the electric bill, like so many of us have done before. Yet with the raise of her brow and a welcoming smile, she turns this routine ordeal into a round of flirtation. Though, before the coquetry can advance beyond a tease, there’s a knock at her door.
Enter Schigolch (Carl Goetz, with just the right amount of dipsomania) who may or may not have been her former pimp and even possibly her father. In either case, he continues to prey upon her willingness to indulge & appease him and, to further ensnare her within his grips, offers her a lead in a variety show. But her loyalties now lie with another man, the wealthy editor in chief, Dr. Schon (a steely Fritz Kortner) who is betrothed to the daughter of the Minister of the Interior. Word of his affair with Lulu has spread among the gossip papers and he must end their relationship. “You’ll have to kill me to get rid of me,” Lulu says, spread upon the bed before him.
It seems almost impossible to include this bit of dialogue
Modern viewers might be surprised by how dark this film is when morals were supposedly more stringently in place. Certainly many found this melodrama’s liberties to be repugnant. It was re-discovered in the 1950s to much acclaim and it’s easy to see how the psychology of Pandora’s Box could be a pre-cursor to films such as Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction and Fight Club. The roots of this film, however, rest with German expressionism though this style was on the wane by 1929 and Brooks’ organic performance certainly puts a subtle twist on the approach.
The film poses an interesting discussion on its intentions. What was Wedekind and, in turn, Pabst trying to say about sexuality? about morality? about society? Those loathe to contemplating such matters might take the most superficial answer and say that sexuality corrupts man and unfettered passion destroys mankind. But, in nearly every turn of this narrative it is not the action of Lulu that condemns her and those around her but the men! It is, among others, Schigolch’s greed, Schon’s jealousy, and Alwa’s gluttony that set in motion the terrible ordeals that transpire. By the end of the film, Lulu seems but a naïve pawn in this mess and it’s hard not to sympathize with her fall from grace (or as close to grace as one might have expected Lulu to reach).
On Halloween night it is not rare to see young woman wearing skimpy nurse costumes or sexy maid outfits nor is it rare to see men sporting pimp suits or something that define a similar dominance. It’s interesting, then, that the flapper dress is commonly one of the least offensive choices from the available selection of costumes. Brooks’ bob may live on as nothing more than a playful reminder of women’s fashion but Lulu’s legacy survives as the stuff of gossip.