“Consulting my journal, I found the latter experience recorded with the baroque extravagance that seems to overcome all those who pay tribute to [Louise] Brooks.”

Kenneth Tynan


Pandora's_Box_(1929_movie_poster)Pandora’s Box, a silent film directed by the Expressionist George W. Pabst,was released in 1929, during the spice-and-dice days of a Weimar Republic that produced bold-faced figures such as Dadaist painter George Grosz, film director Fritz Lang, and theoretical physicist Werner Karl Heisenberg (whose name you might recognize if you have ever watched an episode of Breaking Bad).

Pandora’s Box concerns a free spirit by the name of Lulu, whose heedless lust for life contains the seeds of tragedy—for her sugar-daddy cum short-lived husband, Dr. Schön; Dr. Schön’s strapping son, Alwa; Lulu’s old pimp, Shigolch; the smoldering lesbian, Countess Geschwtiz; and the terrifically named Rodrigo Quast, trapeze artist. All are induced, or one should say, seduced into acts of immorality, be it murder or cheating at cards. Yet the film casts no moral judgments. Women tantalize and men enterprise—this seems to be the only lesson imparted; what we get is what we should expect of all films, that is, a craft in continual consonance with its emotions and its themes, wherein each stylistic flourish is in accordance with the framework of the story, and the story in this particular film is Lulu’s for the taking.

Who is Lulu? Mere pleasure-seeking ingénue or goddess of radiant energy? Wrathful force of nature or innocence beguiled? With her shiny black bob-cut and eruptive eyes, she’s the kind of girl that could put fire in any man’s wire, to quote an old Calypso song. And like poor Typhoid Mary, the 19th century Irish cook who had disbelievingly harbored her eponymous disease, Lulu is the unknowing carrier of that most dangerous of afflictions which has the illimitable power to make or maim, delight or devour, freshen or flambé: beauty. It is this prepossession which has created the very Pandora’s Box that—unbeknownst to Lulu—throbs between her legs.

Yet Lulu is no succubus. When we watch her escapades, whether dangling with delight from the bicep of Rodrigo Quast or extemporizing a rhyme-on-the-dime dance in an Art Deco apartment at the behest of a broken-down harmonica, she carries no traces of menace (this in spite of all the tragedy she will have unwittingly caused); in her blithe manner, she refuses to be manacled to society’s mores—even if that society comprises the ineluctably sexy atmosphere of the decadent Republic, province of Isherwood and Otto Dix. Lulu, however, inhabits more rarified air, replete with men who screw monocles into their astonished eyeballs after they’re done screwing their mistresses; people, in short, who spend more time listening to Belle Nuit than toiling in the ironworks.

Lulu’s is the free-and-easy style of the flappers in the jazz age, with a vitality that perfumes the air. To quote James Salter, from his story “The Cinema,” hers “was a face open and unknowable. It pronounced itself somehow indifferent to life.” Trusting if not quite trustworthy, prone to tantrums, remorseless and yet high-spirited, Lulu does not ask for our sympathy, nor would her sensibilities smart because of our sanction; in fact, she cares nothing for our gaze. She is an elemental force unto herself. She makes all the expressions of female empowerment, from Yoko Ono right on down to Sleater-Kinney, look toothless in comparison. This is not meant as a slight to their immense talents. It is only that, as played by Louise Brooks, Lulu’s is the rare power that can only be measured in mega-tonnage, and thus her competition can only logically be a neutron bomb.

Brooks’s performance in Pandora’s Box has proved an enduring inspiration, giving juice to Liza Minnelli’s portrayal of Sally Bowles in Cabaret and, one could posit, Goth glamour to the sheep-to-shear looks of Siouxsi Sioux. Brooks was even given a shout-out in Scorsese’s Hugo. All this well-deserved fuss from a former Follies dancer born in Cherryvale, Kansas in 1906—a victim of early child abuse, a hard drinker, and a sexual dynamo who had once been the lover of Charlie Chaplin. Brooks was lauded for taking no shit from Hollywood—she ducked from contracts, refused to be enslaved to the system, and even remade herself into a superlative film critic, far from the kissing kliegs.

That early darkness in Brooks’s life—a rape perpetrated by a neighborhood predator when she was nine—could be taken as a key source to the hints of depraved scorn and resignation we detect in the brief life of Lulu. No switchblade-sister, not even Sister Carrie, Brooks plays her with nary an abiding comprehension of ambition or malice; we get the sense that, were she to run Adam out of Eden it would have had nothing to do with the acquisition of knowledge and everything to do with testing the patience of God.

Why is Lulu so heedless? It may be because, like the very young, she has no real conception of evil, to such an extent that she does not recognize it, even when it appears under the guise of Jack the Ripper, who appears at the closing of her film as the agency of her doom. Her beauty riles the beasts within men, like the stings from maddened wasps, and becomes an actual affront to nature that must be destroyed. Perhaps this is why Dr. Schön, at wit’s end as to how to control what he perceives as her profligacy, lips pursed in distemper, begs her to receive a bullet and succumb to suicide (instead, she fires the bullet into him); perhaps this is why The Ripper plants his knife into the very deep of her womb. We’re reminded of Vincent Van Gogh’s abrupt extirpation of beauty during an artistic romp in the sunflower fields of Arles in Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo; the wild and extravagant virtuosity of their very likeness having defeated his brush, Van Gogh feels the urge to extermination, and he indulges in his Freudian death drive. This is precisely how the predominant male characters react to Lulu’s power.

Brooks undoubtedly owns this film. When we ponder this actress, who had no formal training and whose skills were as natural as water (in describing her approach to Lulu, Brooks herself once said, “I was simply playing myself, which is the hardest thing in the world to do”), we are astounded by her prodigies of movement, whether in reaching out for her lover’s cheek or in flight from the madding crowd. She is a woman whose eyes can reduce even the roughest customer into plate-glass sensitivity and whose proportion of form can grant one the fine fuzzy feeling of a niacin flush.

In terms of natural grace and indelible glamour, who can we compare her to today? Eva Mendes and Penelope Cruz taunt the blood with their natural fire; the redheads Jessica Chastain and Christina Hendricks come very near to old-world glamour; Julianne Moore and Patricia Clarkson are doubtless great beauties; Helen Mirren, at 69, can still inspire rapid breathing; Aishwarya Rai has admirers racing to Google (run!); and an icy stunner like Charlize Theron fits easily into the flapper mold. The listing can go on ad infinitum; it is exhausting. Even the most perfunctory glance at our “best” lists tells us that there is no dearth of gorgeous women, inside and outside of Hollywood, but whether this has to do with the proximity of the surgeon’s tools and luxury gyms one can’t say for certain. With the plethora of perfection on view, one might wish for the natural imperfections of a nude Isabella Rossellini in Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

So we return to the guileless beauty of Brooks, whose eyes can signal myriad emotions and whose movements bespeak volumes of complexity. She was fortunate in that the character that she had created was framed within a story compelling enough to capture our attention, and that she had a director with talents equal to, if not surpassing, her own. In today’s world, we don’t lack in abundance of imagery but we certainly lack in mystery, and the character of Lulu is the embodiment of woman as the ultimate mystery—silent, and in black and white no less. What more can one say? Let’s leave it to a great poet to supply the mots justes:

Tell me,
Was Venus more beautiful
Than you are,
When she topped
The crinkled waves,
Drifting shoreward
On her plaited shell?
Was Botticelli’s vision
Fairer than mine;
And were the painted rosebuds
He tossed his lady,
Of better worth
Than the words I blow about you
To cover your too great loveliness
As with a gauze
Of misted silver

Amy Lowell

“Venus Transiens”

Edwin Rivera is an instructor at SVA and editor of The Match Factory. This is the first out of fifty installments of this particular film reviewing series.