Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pandora's Box

Just when I was considering writing a piece on G.W. Pabst's 1928 film Pandora's Box, I remembered the piece I had written for Senses of Cinema five years ago. How time flies, and my memory with it! Silent films are receding so quickly into the past that I wonder how many impartial viewers could tolerate sitting through them today. A restored version of Pandora's Box is now in wide circulation, at 133 minutes.

Pandora's Box

"Lulu's story is as near as you'll get to mine." – Louise Brooks (1)

"There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!" – Henri Langlois (2)

It is easy to see the great films of the short-lived Weimar Republic (1919–33) as haunted and spectral – the artistic expression of a society on its last legs. Their very brilliance seems inseparable from a brittle fragility, as if the extremes toward which they were reaching with an almost breathtaking speed would inevitably result in the backlash that followed, and the flight of their makers into exile or silence.

What makes G W Pabst's 1929 film Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) so astonishing is the candour of its ambiguous sexuality and the electrifying presence of a 22-year-old American actress named Louise Brooks. Based on two plays by Frank Wedekind (1864–1918),(3) the film is a completely modern creation, not the mélange of music hall and tragedy that Wedekind wrote (only later to be labelled “expressionist”); concentrating on the amorous exploits of Lulu, available to seemingly everyone but possessed by no-one, who manages to bring all of her suitors, male or female, to grief.

Pabst was an acutely intelligent director who, in 1928, was already famous for his handling of actors. He had cast a virtually unknown Greta Garbo in his 1925 film The Joyless Street (Die Freudlose Gasse), which convinced Hollywood of her star potential. For the role of Lulu, he reportedly tested and turned down every available actress until he saw Louise Brooks in Howard Hawks' A Girl in Every Port (1928) and asked to borrow her from Paramount Pictures (4). He clearly saw something in Brooks that matched his vision of Lulu, but her casting proved more apt that probably either of them could have anticipated. During filming in Berlin, Pabst gave her a chilling warning: “Your life is exactly like Lulu's, and you will end the same way.”(5)

Encapsulating the plot of the film makes it sound unbelievably lurid (which, of course, it is): when the wealthy Peter Schön attempts to break off his affair with a young dancer named Lulu so that he can wed a respectable socialite, his plan is foiled when he is caught by his fiancée in a compromising position with Lulu. Deciding to marry Lulu instead, Schön discovers on their wedding night that she has seduced his son, Alwa. He gives her a pistol and orders her to shoot herself. She refuses to take the gun from him but in an ensuing struggle Schön is shot dead. Lulu is tried and convicted of murder but escapes the courthouse during a riot when one of her friends activates the fire alarm. Together with Alwa, a lesbian countess and a circus strong man, Lulu escapes by ship and eventually lands in England's East End where she must resort to prostitution. It is there, on a foggy Christmas Eve, that Lulu meets her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

What prevents all of this from teetering over into burlesque is Louise Brooks, who delivers what is surely one of the greatest examples of naturalist acting on film. As Brooks explained to Kenneth Tynan: “I was simply playing myself, which is the hardest thing in the world to do – if you know that it's hard. I didn't, so it seemed easy. I had nothing to unlearn.” (6) Brooks was also a trained dancer and her every movement in the film, from her swoon in the courtroom to her languid, tired last walk up the stairs to her London garret, is sensuously balletic.

The film was photographed by Günther Krampf, who had filmed Murnau's Nosferatu in 1922. Through his subtle use of filters and key lights, he gives Brooks' startling beauty an iridescence, her lacquered black hair starkly contrasted with the shimmering whiteness of her costumes, as if she were nothing more than a gem-like surface to reflect or refract the light around her.

The film wasn't received in Germany with much sympathy, which puzzled Brooks. In her memoir, Lulu in Hollywood, published near the end of her life in 1985, she pondered:

"Berlin had rejected its reality when we made Pandora's Box and sex was the
business of the town. At the Eden Hotel, where I lived in Berlin, the café bar
was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the streets
outside. On the corner stood the girls in boots, advertising flagellation.
Actors' agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian
Quarter. Race-track 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. Collective lust roared unashamed at the theater. In the revue
Chocolate Kiddies, when Josephine Baker appeared naked except for a girdle of
bananas, it was precisely as Lulu's stage entrance was described by Wedekind:
“They rage there as in a menagerie when the meat appears at the cage.” (7)

(1) Quoted in Kenneth Tynan, “The Girl in the Black Helmet”, Show People, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1979, p. 294.
(2) Tynan, 1979, p. 303.
(3) Wedekind's American mother actually named him Benjamin Franklin!
(4) Recounted by Paul Falkenberg, one of Pabst's assistants, to Brooks in 1955. Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood, Knopf, New York, 1982, p. 95.
(5) Brooks, 1982, p. 105.
(6) Tynan, 1979, p. 276.
(7) Brooks, 1982, p. 97.

No comments: