As a filmmaker, G. W. Pabst was attracted to issues and partial to naturalism. Starting with his 1923 fable The Treasure, this most cosmopolitan and protean of Weimar filmmakers produced a series of socially conscious and sexually frank silent movies. He engaged his times, fiddling with Freud (Secrets of a Soul, 1925) and later Brecht (The Threepenny Opera, 1931), as well as his medium. The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), adapted from a novel by Ilya Ehrenberg, is among the culminating works of silent cinema—an ambitious attempt to synthesize Soviet montage, Hollywood action-melodrama, and German mise-en-scène.
Pabst’s content, that is, was typically his “star,” but he was also a brilliant director of actresses. He helped discover Greta Garbo, featured—along with the great Asta Nielsen—in his 1925 The Joyless Street, an internationally acclaimed drama of post–World War I disorder. He obtained Leni Riefenstahl’s most nuanced, least narcissistic performance, in the Alpine spectacular The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929). And he virtually invented Louise Brooks, the minor Hollywood player whom he cast as the innocently wanton protagonist of Pandora’s Box. Adapted from expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind’s fin de siècle Lulu cycle, centered on the destruction wrought by unbridled female eros, Pandora’s Box would, in its shockingly modern, instinct-driven psychology, end up defining both director and actor.
Pabst was still searching for his Lulu when he saw Brooks as a circus performer in Howard Hawks’s 1928 A Girl in Every Port. In vain, Pabst attempted to borrow the actress from Paramount; the studio didn’t even bother to relay the offer to Brooks until after she’d quit (over a salary dispute). The newly unemployed actress then had the studio wire Berlin, thus heading off Pabst’s unhappy decision to cast the far worldlier Marlene Dietrich in Pandora’s Box. This providential telegram, which might easily have arrived too late, sealed Brooks’s fate: seldom has an actress been more closely identified with a particular part, and even less often has a single role been used to reflect on a performer’s life, not least by the performer herself.
The Kansas-born Brooks, a trained dancer and teenage veteran of both George White’s Scandals and the Ziegfeld Follies, needed only Pandora’s Box to fix her image in the firmament. Severe bangs frame anthracite eyes; a lacquered, razor-sharp bob slashes the nape of an exquisite neck. Scimitar spit curls bracket Brooks’s unguarded American smile—a spontaneous dazzler that she, not unreasonably, expects can get her anything.Pandora’s Box opens in medias res, with this captivating creature entertaining several admirers, including the decrepit old Schigolch (Carl Goetz) and the middle-aged bourgeois Schön (Fritz Körtner). The former, for whom Lulu retains a certain filial affection, is the pimp who first turned her out; the latter is the man who currently keeps her. Brooks’s Lulu is the universal object of desire. Everyone competes for the warmth of her gaze, and she thrives on that attention (Pabst rarely lets his camera stray too far). Schön, however, is engaged to the daughter of a cabinet minister. Playing her lover off against his son, Alwa (Franz Lederer), Lulu accepts a job dancing in the show that Alwa is producing and, opening night, seduces Schön on the wardrobe-room floor.
Son and fiancée discover the pair in flagrante; few movie moments are more electrifying than Brooks’s radiant smirk of triumph. Schön must now marry Lulu. The wedding is riotous and sordid—Lulu tangos with a female admirer, Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), and accepts a declaration of love from her new stepson—and ends in a struggle over a gun and Lulu killing Schön. Impassive in black at the trial, she is found guilty. There’s more, of course. Lulu escapes with Alwa, who ruins himself gambling, and she is nearly sold to an Egyptian brothel. The final act finds Lulu in London on Christmas Eve, with the Salvation Army parading through the fog. She lives in a garret with Schigolch and Alwa and, as their sole means of support, slips out into the night to find a john. He turns out to be Jack the Ripper. She gives herself to him with a smile. Strong stuff. In France, Pandora’s Box was reedited so that Alwa was Schön’s secretary and the countess became Lulu’s childhood friend. Lulu was found innocent and Jack the Ripper vanished altogether. Before the movie was shown in New York, its ending was improved to have Lulu join the Salvation Army. Small wonder that the New York Times deemed it “a disconnected melodrama.”
Even in Berlin, Pandora’s Box was considered a failure—a travesty of Wedekind’s plays, featuring a maladroit American as Lulu. Had Brooks been oversold? Clearly the twenty-two-year-old flapper was part of the movie’s publicity. The highbrow British journal Close Up visited the set of Pandora’s Box to report on Brooks’s “mots and quaint sallies.” Then-journalist Lotte Eisner was startled to find the star reading Schopenhauer (in translation). Eisner would later praise Brooks as a surrealist heroine, “an actress who needed no directing, but could move across the screen causing the work of art to be born by her mere presence.” Perhaps. As the actress herself realized, however, her director skillfully facilitated her behavioral performance. Pabst made no effort to contain the resentment many felt at the prospect of this outlander who spoke only English playing “our German Lulu.”
On the contrary. Pabst was more than PR savvy in casting a corn-fed ex-chorine. He was looking for a type. In Voluptuous Panic, his erotic history of Weimar Berlin, theater historian Mel Gordon notes that the late-twenties media phenomenon the Germans called Girlkultur—revolving around sexually independent young women—was largely derived from the Ziegfeld model. Brooks fit the bill. Her Lulu was a new kind of femme fatale—generous, manipulative, heedless, blank, democratic in her affections, ambiguous in her sexuality.
Brooks’s exotic singularity was compounded by the aroused hostility the actress experienced on the set. Pabst wanted the men in the cast to feel Brooks’s skin and have the actress get under theirs. Körtner desperately snubbed her; Brooks recalled that he, “like everyone else on the production,” felt she “had cast some blinding spell over Pabst.” Typically, Brooks praised Pabst for employing Gustav Diessl, the only man on the set she found sexually attractive, as her fatal final lover.
Highly receptive to Berlin’s Weimar vibe, Brooks was the real Sally Bowles. The bar at her hotel, she would write, "was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the street outside. On the corner stood the girls in boots, advertising flagellation. Actors’ agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian Quarter. Racetrack touts at the Hoppegarten arranged orgies for groups of sportsmen. The nightclub Eldorado displayed an enticing line of homosexuals dressed as women. At the Maly, there was a choice of feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians." Brooks reported that upon learning she “had been investigating Berlin’s nightlife till three every morning,” Pabst reined her in.
Given her past as a Broadway showgirl and a Hollywood starlet, Brooks was scarcely naive—yet her avid curiosity regarding what was then the world’s most omnisexual metropolis surely added to the erotic excitement her Lulu conveys. It may be that Brooks’s experience as a Kansas girl in wicked Weimar fulfilled her as an actress. She made only a few movies post–Pandora’s Box, including Pabst’s scarcely less racy Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), before fading from view, to eventually find her voice as a writer.
Pabst soldiered on, making a swift adjustment to sound. His 1930 Westfront 1918 is as audio innovative as Fritz Lang’s M in its existential battle sequences, thudding sense of the material world, and close-to-overlapping dialogue; the weird sauciness of his French-language Threepenny Opera, far superior to his German version, is matched only by the bizarrely Mitteleuropean exoticism of The Mistress of Atlantis (“eine Fata Morgana” from 1932), in which the Bedouin denizens of a Sahara settlement sit around listening to Jacques Offenbach. The elaborate Don Quixote (1933), with Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin singing in phonetic English, is an ambitious attempt to develop a specifically filmic musical form.
Once Hitler came to power, in 1933, Pabst went to Hollywood, where he made A Modern Hero (1934), a Warner Bros. success story told with startling Teutonic harshness. After that aptly titled flop, he relocated to Paris, directing some surprisingly entertaining pulp exotica—Shanghai Drama (1938), made on a Paris soundstage with a cast and crew of Austrians, Indochinese, and White Russians, is the exile film to end all exile films—before haplessly returning to the Reich, in 1939, to rekindle his German career. Officially denazified (but aesthetically discredited) after the war, Pabst made his last films amid the West German economic miracle, including The Last Ten Days (1955), which, scripted by Erich Maria Remarque, was the first German feature to deal with the person of Adolf Hitler.
Pabst ended his career pondering that of the twentieth century’s most malign enchanter. But it is, of course, for another modern icon and another sort of enchantment that Pabst will be remembered. If his career was ultimately determined by the historical forces he sought to represent, Pandora’s Box is the fortunate fruit of historical happenstance. For Pabst no less than Brooks, there would never be another Lulu—nor will there ever be.
J. Hoberman is senior film critic for the Village Voice. His film writing has been anthologized in Vulgar Modernism and The Magic Hour and included in the Library of America’s American Movie Critics.