Pandora’s Box

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“Sex was the business of the town. Inside my Berlin hotel, the cafe 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. Just as Wedekind says, ‘They rage there as in a menagerie when the meat appears at the cage.'”  — Louise Brooks, “Pabst & Lulu.”

Of all the Weimar films, it is perhaps Pandora’s Box that has undergone the biggest reassessment by film scholars over the past sixty years, going from a much maligned failure upon its 1929 release to one of G.W. Pabst’s essential masterworks today. Much of that has less to do with Pabst than with the enduring and mysterious legacy of its major star, Louise Brooks, an American actor not particularly adept at sticking to the expected playbook of the Hollywood studio heads. One quick read through any of her acerbic essays from later in her life provide plenty of points for possible collision between Brooks and the old-boy studio network. Many women could no doubt navigate it with clenched smiles and gritted teeth, but Kansas-born Brooks, always ready to speak her mind, was not among them. When she got the call from Pabst to come to Berlin, she had little to lose and few bridges left to burn. German film scholar Lotte Eisner tells the story of showing up on the set and seeing Brooks sitting in a chair between takes, reading a book that she assumed to be American pop culture fluff or dime-store romance. Haughtily confronting her, Eisner was embarrassed and shocked to see it was Schopenhauer’s Essays in translation. In her later classic work on Weimar film The Haunted Screen, it was Brooks, not Pabst, that Eisner praised as a genius.

Eisner’s initial hostility should be seen in context. Even before casting was finished, German literati attacked the idea of a base film (film was perceived as inferior to stage and still a novelty at best) derived from Frank Wedekind’s two dramas, Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora, which the film synthesizes into a single narrative. Incorporating elements later adopted by stage Expressionists, Wedekind’s dialogue-driven dramas were highly controversial for their candid, if highly stylized, assault on pious sexual attitudes of the late 19th-century. And when, during the high-profile casting search, German actresses like Marlene Dietrich were passed over for an American, it was the final insult. Berlin reviews were brutal and the film failed miserably.

Problems on the set are legendary. Brooks spoke no German and had to be coached phonetically on all her lines (silent film viewers were excellent lip readers and often complained when lip movements failed to match the dialogue text.) Pabst could only communicate with her in broken English. Alice Roberts, unhappy about playing one of the screen’s first lesbians, requested that Pabst speak seductive French to her from offstage so she could make it through her tango scene with Brooks with her moral universe intact. The veteran actors didn’t hide their hatred of the lead, calling Brooks the “spoiled American” brought in to portray “their beloved German Lulu.” Instead of diffusing these onset tensions, Pabst often worked, in his quiet and erudite manner, to exacerbate them, knowing this would only heighten the intensity of the performances. The tactic, however ethically questionable, worked to perfection. Brooks said she had the bruises on her arms to prove it after several physical scenes.

Today, Brooks’s naturalistic performance and iconic look, with her laissez-faire disposition, black bob and bangs, has come to personify the post-WWI “Jazz Age” mentality, the embodiment of joie de vivre and sexual liberation. In Pandora’s Box, the fact that this impulse leads to the ugly inverse says more about masculine paranoia over the erosion of traditional power balances than the emergence of any feminist ideals. Perhaps it is that disorienting dichotomy–championing the new in one fist while reinforcing the old with the other–that strikes such a continued chord with viewers, as the film gets reinterpreted through the filters of media theory.

Strangely, despite their large age gap, both Pabst and Brooks were at the ends of their careers. Pabst made two incredible sound films–Westfront 1918 (1930) and Kameradschaft (1931)–before fading into obscurity with second-rate costume dramas during the Nazi years, which was thankfully the extent of his collaboration. Brooks was blacklisted after she refused to return to Hollywood and convert her silent performance in The Canary Murder Case into a sound version, another actress ultimately dubbing in her lines. The ensuing smear campaign that her voice did not translate well into sound sealed her fate in the industry. She taught dance lessons for a while before becoming a recluse in her Rochester apartment, only leaving to replenish her library book supply. She wrote extensively during this period and had many articles published in The New Yorker and various film journals, later assembled into the well-received book Lulu in Hollywood. It was Henri Langlois and the exploding French film community of the 1960s that brought Brooks to a new generation, with a big retrospective at the Cinematheque Francaise, to which she was invited and treated as royalty by the younger New Wave filmmakers of the day.

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