Welcome to the third installment of Guest Author month at Criterion Files: a month devoted to important classic and contemporary bloggers. This week, Catherine Stebbins, writer for CriterionCast and Cinema Enthusiast, takes on G.W. Pabst’s silent classic Pandora’s Box (1929). Tune in every week this month for an analysis of a different title from a new author.
The first time I saw G.W Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, I thought I knew what Lulu, the character played by Louise Brooks, would be like. All I knew was that Lulu destroyed the lives of those around her. I expected her to be a typical femme fatale, with perhaps a bit of the vamp in her; sexy, manipulative, cold, calculating, powerful. I expected her to be a scheming woman with a plan for destruction.
Lulu is a very complicated character because she is in many ways the direct opposite of the femme fatale despite the amount of damage she inevitably causes. I chose to write about Pandora’s Box because it means a great deal to me. Most importantly, it introduced me to Louise Brooks. I idolize her for all she had to endure, for never compromising and for the enigmatic personality she brought to the screen which has never been matched. By looking at Lulu as a character, I hope to give at least a little insight into her performance in Pandora’s Box and the complicated and ultimately symbolic character she portrays with Lulu.
The name of the film immediately gives some indication of Lulu’s character in the parallels it suggests between her and the myth. Pandora was the first mortal woman in Greek mythology. She was made as a punishment for mankind due to the actions of Prometheus because powerful women were seen as destroyers of man. She possessed incomparable beauty, charm and skill. But she opened a box out of curiosity and released all of the evils in the world and by the time she closed the box the only thing left in it at the bottom was hope.
There are obvious similarities between Pandora and Lulu. Most importantly, curiosity was Pandora’s motivation for opening the box; not some calculated plan to unleash evil on the world. Curiosity can be seen as synonymous with naiveté, which is exactly what Lulu has. Lulu is not the femme fatale. She is a naïve woman who is somewhat unaware of the effect she has on people and of the damage she causes whether it is her fault or not. Lulu does not purposely ruin the lives of the people around her and this is a key characteristic.
In the commentary for the film with Mary Ann Doane and Thomas Elsaesser that can be heard on the Criterion Collection edition of Pandora’s Box, Doane makes a statement that reveals another important characteristic of Lulu’s. Doane states that “she is a character for who the past holds no weight.” Lulu’s sole motivation is pleasure in the present. She does not mean to hurt anyone. She fails to comprehend that her actions affect others and that other people have their own individual feelings and desires. She does not learn from past mistakes and refuses to compromise or dwell on the past. Additionally, Lulu will not learn from past mistakes and is capable of shaking the past off no matter how traumatic it may be.
An example of this is when she returns to Alwa’s place after she escapes from her trial for Schon’s death. Alwa comes home to find Lulu coming out of the bath. She acts insensitively to what Alwa is going through. She smiles even though he has lost his father; she pokes him and he says “How dare you come here.” She looks slightly confused and says “Where else should I go but home?” She smiles, he shakes a hat into her hands and then Lulu gets violently angry and then throws the hat across the room. She then completely changes moods, smiles and crosses the room to go look at herself in the mirror in her bathrobe. Lulu wastes no time moving on from life-changing events so she can continue pursuing the present moment. The way Lulu acts in this scene is not malicious but simply unmindful; because of this, we continue to care about her despite her blatant inability to take other people’s feelings into account.
Another key characteristic of hers that harks back to the natural curiosity of Pandora is Lulu’s childishness. We are the most curious as children and this is what Lulu essentially is; a child. She becomes the most childlike around her “father”/pimp Schigolch. She is the most familiar with him and sits on his lap whenever she sees him. The most extreme example of Lulu’s childishness is the tantrum she has backstage at the revue she participates in. Schon brings Charlotte his fiancée backstage at the revue which Lulu is performing in and shows
her around. When Lulu sees Schon, her expressions and mannerisms are that of an upset child. Her brow pushes forward and her lips pout out and Lulu suddenly looks like a five-year old who did not get her way. She stomps off and refuses to perform in the show, pushes people out of her way and makes a large commotion in front of Schon.
A piece of behind the scenes knowledge during the making of the film can also shed some light on how Pabst might have seen Lulu. When she shoots Schon, G.W Pabst told Louise Brooks to react by saying “Das Blut!” meaning “the blood!” Although neither the line nor Brooks’s lips uttering the words make it into the film, this direction is an indication of Lulu’s childlike nature. Instead of telling Brooks to react to the fact that she just shot and killed her lover and her best friend’s father, Pabst tells her to react to a much more abstract thing. A child would unlikely understand the full implications of the death of someone and instead would react to the concrete physicality of the blood. Pabst’s direction of Brooks during this scene suggests that he also looks at Lulu as having childlike qualities.
For all of Lulu’s characterization, her mere presence gives off a sense of symbolic purpose. The connection to the figure of Pandora and the elusiveness of Lulu elevates her to a mythical-like status. This is why it takes a figure like the assumed “Jack the Ripper” to eliminate her; someone with that historical status is the only one who has the ability to destroy her. The way Pabst’s camera depicts the actress, and the meaning that Brooks’s presence and performance give to the film add to the fascination that comes with Lulu, making her a unique character and an iconic presence in film.
Louise Brooks never poses for the camera. It makes her all the more appealing, and Pabst uses this to his advantage by adding different lighting techniques, most notably soft focus and expressionistic lighting to enhance her undeniably unique qualities. Using soft focus for close-ups was standard, but Pabst’s use of it veers towards visual poetry. The casting of Brooks, an American among a cast of Germans, gives her an added air of mysteriousness and unfamiliarity to audiences; she sticks out even more so because of it. Louise Brooks plays Lulu with a natural air that has never been equaled. Rumor has it that the reason that Pabst did not cast Marlene Dietrich over Brooks was because he had said that “one sexy look and the picture would become a burlesque.” He needed Brooks’s effortless quality in front of the camera to make the film stand out among others and he knew it.
Brooks’s real life antics make the character of Lulu even more engaging to a modern day audience. She was promiscuous, very much into sex and desire almost to a fault. She and Lulu represented the modern woman who was in control of her life, her sexuality and of the choices that she made. Unfortunately for Brooks, many of these were bad choices, but she made her own life by her own rules. The Hollywood system could not contain her. All of Lulu’s seductive qualities were Louise Brooks’s. Pabst managed to capture the essence of her. This is not an act; beyond the definite construct of Lulu, I believe we are seeing Louise Brooks herself.
Lulu is a character in cinema that has become an icon, representing desire, eroticism; a woman who seems to be in control of the camera that photographs her, her femininity and her power. Lulu is brought to life by Louise Brooks, a legend in her own right, who is unforgettable as Pandora’s Box. Make no mistake that in the end, for all its other accomplishments, of which there are many, Brooks makes this film. She is sex and desire. She is a curious child. She is living completely for herself. She is mythically symbolic. She is Lulu.
When Catherine Stebbins isn’t busy translating advice from German directors, she lends her perceptive critiques to CriterionCast and her blog Cinema Enthusiast. You can, and should, follow her on twitter @cinephile24.
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