Jazz Age icon Zelda Fitzgerald described one of her heroines as “She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring”. In many ways, this description could just as easily have been attached to fellow roaring twenties jazz babe Louise Brooks. Born in Kansas in 1906 to a lawyer and would-be artist, Brooks’ all-American beginnings hardly read like the start of a Hollywood legend. After several moderate successes in American films however, Brooks embarked on a trip across the pond, where she found artistic and monetary success in a series of European films. One of these films was the silent tale of Weimar decadence Pandora’s Box, which would foreshadow the meteoric rise and fall of its star, just as her own story would go on to mirror the changing fortunes of countless Americans during the 1920’s.
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The film begins as call-girl turned kept woman Lulu (Brooks) entertains her former pimp, Schigolch (Carl Gotz), at the home of her latest benefactor. Conflict soon arises as her boyfriend, Dr. Schon (Fritz Kortner) arrives at the apartment and attempts to break off their relationship, citing his impending marriage to a conveniently wealthy and well-connected woman. Lulu scoffs at his attempts to “let her down easy” and insists that “you’ll have to kill me to be rid of me”. Schon starts to give in, but discovers Schigolch hiding in the next room and storms out of the apartment. Even in this first scene, Brooks demonstrates a strong understanding of the contradictions of her character, as she effortlessly alternates between childishly sitting on Schigolch’s lap one moment to seducing Schon the next. Lulu continues to manipulate Schon from behind the scenes as she meets with his son, Alwa (Francis Lederer), who is also smitten with her, and arranges to start a stage career in an attempt to make Schon jealous. Her efforts are rewarded, as he insists that Alwa feature her in his own upcoming stage review. Lulu gleefully accepts the role and all seems to be following her plan until Schon brings his fiancée to the performance’s opening night. Lulu is enraged at the sight of her rival, and refuses to go on with the show. Her tantrum leads the director to bring Schon backstage in an effort to coax her into performing. This of course plays directly into Lulu’s plan, and she quickly entices Schon into meeting her demands. Just as the two reconcile, Alwa and Schon’s fiancé walk in on them in the midst of a passionate embrace. Lulu triumphantly saunters past them to the stage as Schon resigns himself to the fact that he will not be rid of her as long as they are both alive.
After an intermission, the film then shows a dejected Schon as he helplessly watches Lulu engage in various indiscretions at their wedding reception. When he wearily enters his bedroom to find Lulu engaged with two other men, he finally reaches his breaking point and hands her his pistol, demanding that she shoot herself “before you drive me to murder”. They fight over the gun and it goes off, killing Schon. After she is convicted of Schon’s murder, she escapes prison with the help of her underworld associates, and temporarily lives the high life on the run until her luck finally runs out. At the film’s finish, Lulu is back where she started working the streets of London as a prostitute, where she ultimately seals her fate through an act of kindness.
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Despite the fact that it has been over eighty years since the film’s debut, Pandora’s Box remains a cutting-edge classic. Although the film’s plot is in many ways outrageous, it is also far more honest than most other films of its time dared to be. Not only does the film feature a promiscuous young woman as its protagonist, but it also avoids blaming her for the havoc she causes. In fact, the film seems to share Lulu’s hedonistic world view, as she is continually rewarded for her misbehavior while those around her suffer the consequences. Through its willingness to not only observe, but actually embrace the sleaziness of Weimar era Berlin’s underworld, Pandora’s Box remains astoundingly modern. Similarly, Brooks' performance is anything but dated as she deftly alternates between her character’s highs and lows in her portrayal of a girl who somehow lost her way on the path to adulthood. Although the film is silent, its cinematography creates an intimacy with the audience that removes any doubt as to what is going on in Lulu’s fickle mind or those of the other characters. Through its combination of technical triumphs and strong performances, the film is able to rise above what easily could have been a stilted product of its time, and instead becomes a chillingly relevant warning from the past against the all too familiar vices of the present.
The film could have also served as a warning to its star, albeit one that would have inevitably fallen on deaf ears. Following the success of Pandora’s Box, Brooks went on to make a follow-up with the film's director, G. W. Pabst, as well as a French talkie. At this point, Pabst was eager to capitalize on his success with his new muse and asked Brooks to remain in Europe to sign a contract with him. Brooks, bored of European cinema, instead chose to return to America, despite the fact that Paramount had suspended her contract. After refusing to dub her role in The Canary Murder Case so that the film could be re-marketed as a talkie, Brooks was deemed to be too rebellious for Hollywood, and blacklisted by its studios. She attempted to make a comeback with several small parts in talking pictures, but was unable to reclaim the success she had found in Europe. Eventually, she returned to her first love, dance, and returned to Kansas to open a dance school. Her willful temperament ultimately proved just as unsuitable for teaching as it was for studio acting, and she was soon forced to close the school, supporting herself as a sales clerk and occasional prostitute.
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Just as all hopes for success were growing dim for her, however, Brooks was offered a second chance from cinema. In the early 1950’s, French film historians rediscovered prints of her silent films and proclaimed her a lost icon. As a result, Europe faced another epidemic of Lulu fever that carried over to the United States. At this time, the George Eastman House purchased several film essays from her, and she began a second career as a film historian. Although she remained largely reclusive for the rest of her life, she became an authoritative voice on film history through a series of essays and documentaries. Over the course of her life, Brooks inspired numerous artists including the creators of the massively popular Dixie Dugan comic strip.
Through its meeting of old-world decadence and new-world rebellion, Pandora’s Box unleashed a new kind of heroine onto the silver screen. The unapologetic antics of Lulu and company paved the way for gritty tales of modern women that have continued on into the 21st century. The film’s portrait of the hedonist as a young woman provides a view of the party lifestyle that overtook the western world in the 1920’s, and foreshadowed the inevitable hangover that was to come. Through its honest portrayal of a society that seems to have lost track of its priorities, the film remains startlingly modern and eerily relevant. I highly recommend opening this Pandora’s Box to film buffs and anyone curious as to what made the 1920’s roar.