Pandora’s Box (1929)

First, Betty Compson smouldered in the misty Docks of New York as she rumbled the hero’s world, but without an ounce of malicious intent. Brigitte Helm drew the panting men of the dizzying Metropolis with her apocalyptic dance. But this was only a machine double of the virtuous heroine.

Pandora’s Box presents a whole other breed of woman in Lulu. Smoky eyes surrounded by porcelain skin, and lips that fell naturally into a tempting pout were framed by the bangs of a black helmet, voted one of the ten styles to change the world by Instyle Magazine. She was more alluring than any of the femme fatales to follow and twice as dangerous because of her naivety. And often it is difficult to distinguish between describing Lulu and her real life counterpart Louise Brooks.

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Born in 1906 to an oppressive father and free spirited mother, Louise quickly danced her way out of Kansas to New York city and across London before returning to begin a film career. Her reign began in 1925 and abruptly ceased in 1938 with only 24 films to her name. But along the way, she lived according to her own rules. As she stated, ‘When I went to Hollywood… the girls were wearing lumpy sweaters and skirts . . . I was wearing sleek suits and half naked beaded gowns and piles and piles of furs’.

She was the original flapper girl and a trend setter, with men following in her wake and women flowing to hairdressers for the bob still nicknamed the ‘Lulu’ today. Her free-spiritedness, sexual liberation and style became known as the ‘New Modern Woman’ across the globe. She was thrown from hotels for being too wild, arrived on set when she had no other plans, and drank copiously. In these states, she was liable to do anything, including telling her Paramount contractors to go to hell when they asked her to dub her previous silent pictures.

As Brooks cut the last tie with Hollywood, master director George Wilhelm Pabst’s net caught her in Berlin. Pabst would create an icon of Brooks in two pictures – the Diary of a Lost Girl and Pandora’s Box. Initially, casting of a difficult American stirred German actresses in to a frenzy, but the rapture was quickly silenced by a ground breaking performance.

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Pandora’s Box charts the rise and fall of Lulu, a seductive young woman who inspires the passions and downfalls of those around her. Pabst, no shy figure in the exploration of exploring sexuality, delivers an intriguing character study beyond comfortable perimeters of the time.

Lulu is classic femme fatale. With her effortless seduction she can weave men and women (this picture is the first to present an openly lesbian character) around her little finger. As Brooks states, ‘A well dressed woman, even though her purse is painfully empty, can conquer the world’.

But Lulu does not strike us as a woman with a grand plan. She has no care for the world, or money or even the next day, she is totally in the moment and oblivious to the gravity of situations she finds herself within. In one scene, she escapes in a mad rush from a court sentencing of five years imprisonment and decides to return home, settling as if returning from a shopping trip.

This does not mean she is simplistic, but rather absolute. She emanates compete confidence and beauty. As French critic  Ado Kyrou wrote, ‘She is much more than a myth, she is a magical presence, a real phantom, the magnetism of the cinema’. Lulu retains that enticing smile, that ‘it’ in her humble apartment, her newly obtained mansion and even in her finale squalor without an inch of compromise.

Many directors would play this lack of change as an evil trait, but Pabst proves that naivety is a weapon much more deadly than malice. Brooks plays the character completely straight, amoral, not evil, playfully innocent, not stupid. In the opening, we witness her flirting with a man. He appears respectable, perhaps her husband. Then Schigolch arrives and is instantly whisked into the bedroom, the man is annoyed and disappointed. He picks up his cap and reveals himself to be an electrician. Everything is a game.

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Tynan write, ‘although the film is a tragedy, it is also a celebration of the pleasure principle’. Pandora’s Box does not condemn, it is a vicarious experience. Lulu may cause destruction, but she makes it look fun.

Later in the first act, Schon arrives to inform Lulu their meeting is over. He is to marry a Cabinet Minster’s daughter. Lulu is not enraged and instead dreamily reclines on her bed. Schon desperately attempt to distance himself from her, but Lulu is a black hole and the gravity becomes overwhelming. They embrace and she whispers a foreboding warning – ‘You’ll have to kill yourself to be free of me’.

It is the same feeling I had watching Fight Club. Tyler Durden is an anarchist hell bent on tearing the world apart, but he is so charming, intelligent and powerful, that we want him to succeed. Lulu does not even wield a manifesto. She is an ID without the superego.

The finale is worth mentioning. After many twists of fate, Lulu hides in England and is reduced to prostitution to survive. By an unlikely turn of events, her next customer is Jack the Ripper. Although he jettisoned his knife as he is consumed by his desire for her, a bread knife lying next to the bed proves irresistible and the killer escapes to the fog.

Perhaps a step too far, but it is fitting an passionate lover who associates murder and sex so closely is her dramatic end. Most importantly, it does not resonate as if Pabst ultimately condemns Lulu. Instead, it is a selfish ending along the lines of Fight Club, namely, we can not bear to allow these exciting characters to continue their adventures without us. And frankly, it is better to see them explode white hot than allow them to burn out.

Which is the fate the true Lulu suffered.

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After a string of European success, Louise Brooks returned to Hollywood but found herself blacklisted as difficult. She made her last picture in 1938 before falling into relative obscurity. In the coming years, odd jobs and the bank accounts of three very rich gentlemen provided her living before she settled in Rochester, New York.

She is known to us today thanks to the help of two men: James Card and Kenneth Tynan. The former, the curator at the Eastman House, tracked down the faded star and introduced her to the collection of her work. The two tirelessly worked to rejuvenate her image and publish her memoirs titled Lulu in Hollywood. The latter wrote an article for the New Yorker in 1971 and re-acquainted the world with the icon known as the ‘Girl in the Black Helmet’.

Classic Moment… 

During the reception party of Lulu and Schon, the husband becomes a vessel of jealousy and rage which erupts into an intimate moment of madness. Schoo presses the pistol to Lulu’s heart and begs her to kill herself. If he can not have her completely or at least tame her, it is better she ceases to exist. There is a wrestle, and smoke billows from his torso as he falls dead. Lulu’s expression lingers in the mind – it is not the horror of a woman losing a husband, but a child disappointed in someone spoiling the game.

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