In 1929, after an extensive search throughout Europe, German Expressionist filmmaker, G.W. Pabst finally found his star. Louise Brooks, a 20-year-old American ex-Ziegfeld Follies dancer would breathe hot life into playwright Frank Wedekind’s iconic character, Lulu. The story would revolve around this stunning nymph, a doomed Lolita who inadvertently destroys herself and those around her. In Richard Leacock and Susan Woll’s 1984 documentary, Lulu in Berlin, 78-year-old Louise Brooks explained that in Europe, Pabst had been unable to find a “true beauty” to play Lulu. “There simply were none.” Marlene Dietrich had been slated to play the part but Pabst was unsatisfied, considering her too old and jaded (at 25) to appropriately fit his vision of the character. Dietrich, while glamorous and lovely, projected a world-weary cynicism in her performance style that would have been inappropriate for the role. Pabst saw in Brooks a guilelessness juxtaposed with an intense sexual energy. With her modern, iconic look, a boyish black pixie cut, languid figure, and sparkly eyes, Brooks was “a natural” who would only need to exude the inherent feminine buoyancy she already possessed.
In his plays, Erdgeist (1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904) Wedekind told the story of Lulu, the naïve femme fatale, so gorgeous and magnetic that no man or woman could resist her charms. She unknowingly cast a sexual spell on everyone she came into contact with, yet involvement with her inevitably caused certain death and total destruction. In Pandora’s Box, Pabst conflated Wedekind’s plays into a lushly melodramatic black and white silent film. Louise Brooks’ presence onscreen oozed a sexual energy that was alternately girlish and predatory. His film, composed and shot in the Expressionist style, was a searing social critique dealing with issues of class, gender, and female sexuality. The film told the story of a charming, high-class courtesan to whom everything came easily. It was revealed, as the tale unfolded, that she had come from nothing to become the object of every man’s desires. She was financially supported by a wealthy doctor and was loved by both he and his young handsome son. Lulu hadn’t a care in the world and in fact, seemed emotionally vacant. She breezed through life seemingly unaffected by the romantic trauma she inflicted on those around her. Ironically, in the end, Lulu was murdered by the only man she was ever able to feel true sexual desire for.
In Pandora’s Box, Pabst and Wedekind offered a cautionary tale about the dangers of female sexual freedom. They endowed Lulu with a dangerous weapon and turned it backwards upon her. In these men’s eyes, woman was either an innocent and sexually desirable child, or a man-eater, or both. She was evil even if she didn’t mean to be. If she unleashed her sexual energy she would cause pain and eventually be punished for her “sins.” Against a backdrop of this troubling yet visually striking and attractive tome of misogyny, Pabst and Wedekind condemned the decadence of high-class German society by having the elite male and female characters travel seamlessly between their glittering world of champagne and tuxedos and the slimy depths housing criminal activity, gambling, and prostitution.
Pandora’s Box was a study in dichotomies in its aesthetic style, story, and characterizations. The film was shot in rich, glowing lights and darks. Predating and inspiring the Film Noir style of the 1940s crime drama, Expressionist filmmaking utilized ultra-theatrical lighting effects. Shadows were void black, sequins on a gown sparkled with a blinding intensity, and seedy streets were steamy and dim. This cinematic technique served as a storytelling mechanism. The shadows and light informed the audience of the moral value of a location and its inhabitants. In Pandora’s Box, the crisp modern interiors stood in stark contrast to the damp London streets or the floating, rag tag gambling den Lulu ended up in following her fall from grace. The sets and lighting subtly illustrated to the audience, without words, Lulu’s downward spiral.
The costumes were another gorgeous and informative element in this film. Lulu’s dresses reflected her condition throughout the piece. In the beginning of the picture, we saw her in white silk chiffon, the garb of a purely innocent girl-child. Later, on her wedding day, she wore a sleek white satin gown that glimmered in the light. In the courtroom scene, she seemed to have on an identical dress but this time in black. The black satin exposed a moral shift while maintaining the elegant sophistication of her elevated social position. Finally, in her last days alive she appeared in a dull, grubby gray dress, texturally the opposite of all of the previous fabrics. The lackluster rags she wore mirrored her tattered emotional state.
Pabst used character archetypes in the story as well. The players in the film were divided and placed in contrast to one another. In keeping with Expressionism’s frequent use of mirrors as symbols, Lulu’s homeless, elderly father seemed to reflect her dark inner soul. He was ugly while she was beautiful. He was as old as she was young and blossoming. She was bubbly and spontaneous while he was creaky and conniving. Pabst employed this approach with his other characters, the rich doctor whom Lulu married and murdered was cynical, dark, hardened, and emotionally guarded, while his son, Lulu’s lover Alwa, was vulnerable, young, handsome, romantic, and ultimately too weak to save her.
These mirroring effects were common in the Expressionist style. Elements were exaggerated and distorted to reveal the deeper value and truth of a work. By employing these kinds of stylistic tactics, Pabst created an exemplary example of Expressionist art. The costumes, lighting, and scenery added to his perfectly crafted aesthetic vision. Louise Brooks offered a personal style and charisma that continues to compel audiences. Her energy and creative focus distilled the character to its base elements and made the vampish Lulu a beautiful and moving portrayal of a doomed human being. Brooks was able to transcend any misogynistic shackles that were place upon her through the sheer force of her personality. In Pandora’s Box, Brooks exuded an intelligence rarely seen in any of today’s screen beauties.