Category: Watzek Screens

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.

Joyless Street

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On March 10, 1925, Otto Rothstock, a 25-year old dental technician, entered the publishing offices of writer and social activist Hugo Bettauer. As a curious Bettauer watched on, Rothstock calmly locked the door behind him, turned to face the desk, and fired a revolver five times into Bettauer’s chest at point-blank range. Such was the harmonious union between politics and art in Germany’s Weimar Republic.

Okay, in all fairness, Austria. Bettauer was a well-known and publicly-despised left wing journalist and author who had managed to carve out some notoriety for himself via his scathing exposes of the Viennese bourgeoisie, his weekly publication credited with at least one corrupt official’s suicide. He called for legalizing abortions, advocated for married women to retain their maiden names, and railed against existing sexual mores, which he criticized as pious, patriarchal, and out of step with the new spirit of modernity. Rothstock was a budding Nazi, convinced that his impromptu assassination and subsequent surrender (he hung out on the office sofa and waited for the police to arrive) was a public service in the grand name of Austrian nationalism, to rid the state of at least one fly in its ointment. Bettaeur lingered on for a week or so. Rothstock was deemed “insane” and back on the street in 18 months. A small-yet-prescient window into the future.

Although popular in his day and publishing 3-4 novels per year, Bettauer’s literary legacy (if one could call it that, given his almost complete obscurity) rests on two works, both of which were serialized in Austrian newspapers. His most famous, Die Stadt ohne Juden from 1922, or City Without Jews, gained more of a reputation after the war, when it was reassessed as an ominous harbinger of things to come (the use of freight cars strikes a particularly eerie parallel.) In Bettauer’s alternate reality, however, the Viennese citizenry expel all Jews from the city only to realize that, without them, their capital is crumbling and culturally deficient, at which point the mayor welcomes them all back with open arms and much public pageantry. The fact that the author uses this mass expulsion as a comically-improbable extreme to heighten the novel’s satiric impact only reflects the pre-1933 limits many Europeans placed on state-sponsored antisemitism.

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First and only English translation of Die freudlose Gasse

But oddly, it was Bettauer’s 1924 Die freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street) that got him killed: an indictment of the corrupt Viennese establishment dressed up as a murder mystery. Like “crime” writer Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? or the blacklisted Guy Endore’s Werewolf of Paris, Bettauer used the “penny-dreadful” genre as a vehicle to communicate broader universal truths to the masses, to pose uncomfortable questions and shed light on hypocrisies and social inequities. And purportedly, it was this that director and fellow Austrian G.W. Pabst saw in Bettauer’s novel as well.

For his film adaptation, Pabst ditches some of the novel’s more melodramatic elements and puts the transient presence of the “street” front and center, a dark and claustrophobic artery tenuously linking its disparate inhabitants. Pabst’s love of Bertolt Brecht is in evidence, with lives alternately shaped and destroyed by poverty and opportunity, struggles for simple sustenance juxtaposed with a crass, opulent hedonism. Greta Garbo gets her big non-Swedish break here, quickly snatched up by Hollywood shortly after the film’s release and hitting it big internationally. Even more impressive is the performance of screen veteran Asta Nielsen, who comes across as hauntingly ethereal in scenes, part mousy librarian, part powdered drag queen. Werner Krauss, who plays the butcher, is better known for being the sadistic doctor in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. His only requirement of Pabst was that his dog get good screen time as well. But of everyone, it’s the multi-faceted protopunk genius of dancer/actor Valeska Gert, as the owner of the brothel, that steals the show.

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Valeska Gert

Very few of the silent films now considered masterpieces of the German Weimar era have the difficult history of The Joyless Street. Granted, it was not uncommon for international silent films to suffer at the hands of foreign editors. With no sound synchronization to worry about, editors and projectionists could (and did) butcher at will, deleting entire sections, rewriting intertitle cards between shots, or whatever was needed to “sanitize” a film and get it past local censors. In a couple of snips, brothels became orphanages and sex workers became volunteers for the Salvation Army (to cite two German examples, the latter from another Pabst film). The relative completeness of its German counterparts—Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Der Golem—reflects the fact that, much like today, horror is tolerated better than sex in the U.S. market, particularly in the 1920s when cinema was still a burgeoning industry and hypersensitive to any critiques of its morality. So a cheery Teutonic rumination on starvation, sexual degradation, and economic collapse was sure to bring the x-acto knives out in force. Almost immediately, 150 minutes became anywhere from 120 to 90 to 57. Some reviewers of the day could not even piece together the basic narrative. A second obstacle faced by the restorers was the lack of any existing intertitles in the original German. For the purposes of this restoration, Filmarchiv Austria painstakingly recreated these using a combination of a 1926 censorship report, an early draft of the shooting script, and foreign print intertitles retranslated back into German.

The result: as close to Pabst’s finished vision as we will ever see, and an incredible restoration achievement that was over ten years in the making.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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On an October night in 1913, Czech poet Hans Janowitz was walking through Hamburg’s notorious Reeperbahn, looking for a girl “whose beauty and manner attracted him.” He followed her laugh into an adjacent park, where she vanished into the shrubbery with a man. The laugh abruptly stopped. Unnerved, Janowitz hung around and finally saw the shadow of a man emerge, his face like an “average bourgeois” as he passed. The headlines next morning read “Horrible sex crime on the Holstenwall!” Janowitz attended the girl’s funeral, convinced that he had witnessed the crime; and there he locked eyes again with the “average bourgeois,” who seemed to recognize him.

This incident served as the inspiration for Janowitz’s script, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, albeit abstracted through the prism of a shattered Imperialist Germany. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that German film starts with 1919’s Caligari, and while the term “Expressionism” is often applied loosely to all films from the period, Caligari is one of a handful that plays by the aesthetic rules of that movement, with its jagged set design, chiaroscuro lighting, and stilted, arrhythmic performances. The cinematic German Expressionists (the movement was already underway in drama and art) were not concerned with what they considered mundane reflections on nature or the recording of simple facts. It wasn’t destruction, death and totalitarianism they wanted to expose but the interior visions these things provoke, filtered through the senses and refracted back as a more accurate representation of human experience. Mind giving form to matter, not the other way around — the driving creative force of the writers and set designers.

But mind giving form to money was preferable to the producers. They brought in director Fritz Lang to help make the surreal story more palatable (and exportable) but, due to other commitments, he had to drop out of the project early on. Despite his short tenure, Lang’s one recommendation infuriated the writers by bookending the narrative with “lunatic asylum” segments that they felt undermined the script’s anti-authoritarian message. Thus, the murderous, sleepwalking “everyman” manipulated and controlled by the totalitarian master became a deus ex machina by a guy in a straight jacket. Both the producers and new-director Robert Weine loved the idea and felt it would give Caligari more international appeal, putting the upstart German film industry on the map.

Other events helped to do that. And after Hitler and what the West perceived as the complete acquiescence of the German citizenry to Nazi will, the film’s subtext was so undeniably clear that the framing device hardly mattered anymore. Instead of the first classic horror film, Caligari became a huge unheeded warning cry that things were still amiss in the collective German psyche, that the servant /master game was still brewing behind the scenes in the Weimar Republic, or so thought expatriates like Siegfried Kracauer, whose 1947 study From Caligari To Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film set the scholarly debate framework for decades to come, until feminist film theory began to challenge some of those sacrosanct ideas. The film’s reputation continued to grow. Over the decades, it became an art house perennial, the iconic image of somnambulist Conrad Veidt (later the lead Nazi in Casablanca) cropping up on album covers, advertisements, and t-shirts. Of all the Weimar era films, only Lang’s Metropolis can claim such a lasting impact on our popular culture.