“At the Eden Hotel, where I lived in Berlin,” recalled Louise Brooks in her memoir Lulu in Hollywood, “the café bar was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the street 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.” Clearly, Miss Brooks was not in her native Kansas any more.
Louise Brooks arrived in Berlin on October 14, 1928, to play Lulu in G.W. Pabst’s production of Pandora’s Box (1929). Pabst had scoured Germany looking for the perfect actress, shocking the country when he chose an American for the iconic role. In Brooks Pabst recognized “the naturally erotic, yet tantalizingly innocent allure” that characterized the fatally seductive Lulu. Up until that point, Brooks had enjoyed reasonable success in Hollywood, playing supporting roles in mid-budget films such as The American Venus (1926) and Love ’Em and Leave ’Em (1926).
While Colleen Moore and Clara Bow defined the fun-loving Jazz Age flapper in films such as Flaming Youth (1923) and It (1927), Brooks did not capture the public’s imagination to the same extent. She had appeared in 14 feature films since her uncredited debut in The Street of Forgotten Men (1925) but never was defined as a “type” by studio publicity departments. In addition to a miscellany of minor roles, Brooks appeared as a gangster moll, flapper, the girl-next-door, an acrobat, cabaret performer, and fugitive, never achieving A-list status in Hollywood. Even when playing a major role as in William Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928), she received lesser billing than the leading men.
Brooks arrived in Berlin ten years after the Armistice ended World War I. Germany’s defeat had sparked political revolution and financial collapse, along with a cultural upheaval that overturned social norms and inspired artistic expression. Disillusioned artists used their respective mediums to reject the traditions of prewar imperial Germany. Paul Klee, Max Ernst, and Otto Dix pushed the boundaries of visual arts, while novelists Herman Hesse, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Mann plumbed the German soul. On the stage, Bertolt Brecht exposed the hypocrisy of conventional morality in The Threepenny Opera.
In cinema, Expressionism and avant-garde experimentation held sway during the first half of the 1920s. Robert Wiene’s geometrically daring settings and stylized characterizations in the groundbreaking The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) challenged the boundaries of perception and reality. Germany’s most important directors followed suit, using the camera to express their characters’ psychological states. G.W. Pabst took a new direc- tion, introducing die neue sachlichkeit (the new reality) into German cinema. His The Joyless Street (1925), in which Greta Garbo and Asta Nielsen face prostitution as a necessity of survival, depicted contemporary social conditions and human sexuality in a direct and nonjudgmental way.
While artists were shattering old boundaries of expression, social conventions also came under assault. In casting off stuffy imperial Germany, traditional notions of sexual morality gave way to more open attitudes toward sex and social culture, in particular toward women. Historian Eric Weitz describes Berlin’s “New Woman,” as “wearing short hair … slender, athletic, erotic, and amaternal—she smoked … went out alone, and had sex as she pleased.” Louise Brooks, as both an actress and persona, epitomized the prototype.
During the 1920s, Berlin became a magnet for the young and the ambitious. Between 1900 and 1920, the population more than doubled to 4.2 million, making it the second largest city in Europe and rivaling Paris and London as a cultural center. Inspired by a new licentiousness in books, lectures, magazines, and movies, Berlin’s glittering cabaret and nightclub scene catered to every taste and persuasion. The most extravagant erotic revues could be found at Haller-Revue, while the Adois-Lounge welcomed “wild boys” and “sugar lickers,” and the Cabaret of the Nameless featured amateur onstage performances. Population rolls recorded 30,000 registered prostitutes, a figure that excludes male prostitutes and women who engaged in sex work unofficially.
Not all Germany approved of the sexual revolution. Conservatives across the country, especially the Protestant and Catholic churches, stridently opposed open attitudes toward sex, especially as it related to female emancipation. That women could determine their own lives, choose their sex partners, and decide whether or not to marry seemed indicative of all that was wrong with German life and presaged the downfall of the Weimar Republic. To combat what they perceived as the era’s moral failings, conservative groups called for the censorship of popular media in general and cinema in particular, targeting G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street, which was heavily cut by German censors.
In 1928, Pabst filmed Pandora’s Box, adapted from two plays by Frank Wedekind. With Louise Brooks as the alluring temptress Lulu, Pabst’s depiction and graphic use of sexual themes provoked moral indignation and was frequently considered too explicit by local censors who often cut or even banned the film. The outrage that greeted Pandora’s Box did not deter Pabst, however, who established his own production company and undertook an even more provocative subject. In Diary of a Lost Girl, Pabst further explored bourgeois hypocrisy and sexual freedom, with Louise Brooks once again portraying his heroine. In the film, Pabst used the main character Thymian, who opts for alienation rather than hypocritical conformity, as a vehicle to attack the self-righteous values of the German middle class. Like Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl was ruthlessly attacked by the press and censors, ultimately requiring Pabst to film an alternate ending for German audiences.
While well-known and popular with audiences today, the two Pabst films starring Brooks had little impact on their own era. Both were released after The Jazz Singer (1927), which marked the dawn of talkies, and suffered the additional liability of being heavily censored at home and abroad. Seemingly irrelevant at the time, Diary of a Lost Girl was never even released in the United States. Louise Brooks made one last film in Europe, Prix de beauté (1930), filmed in Paris as a silent and later dubbed in French prior to its release. Returning to America, the actress was ignored by the studios, which cast her in a handful of forgettable low-budget shorts and westerns over the next eight years. Her final screen appearance was in Overland Stage Raiders (1938), primarily notable for its emerging star, John Wayne.
Pabst went on to create important films in the early sound era, including Westfront 1918 (1930), The Threepenny Opera (1931), and Comradeship (1931). In 1933 he directed A Modern Hero (1934) in Hollywood, and later made several films in France, including Mademoiselle Docteur (1937) and Le drame de Shanghai (The Shanghai Drama) (1938). Pabst returned to his native Austria in 1939, directing three wartime films, including Komodianten (1942), which was awarded a gold medal at the Fascist-controlled Venice Film Festival. Though Pabst continued to direct until 1956, film scholar Lee Atwell concludes, “Never again was Pabst able to achieve such a powerfully cynical view of the society … and no director during the silent period equaled his ability to create scenes of sustained erotic intensity that appeal to our aesthetic sense as well as our innermost desires.”
Presented at SFSFF 2010 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra