By mid-October 1928, when production began on Pandora’s Box in Berlin, the art of silent cinema was at its zenith. That year alone, U.S. audiences had already been treated to Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr., Frank Borzage’s Street Angel, Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March, and Walther Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a City. Yet Al Jolson’s voice had filled movie houses with the sound of the future just one year before, and the Jazz Age was a year away from a fatal crash. In Germany, however, the cultural and social freedoms offered by the fragile Weimar Republic remained in full swing.
A recent arrival to Berlin later recalled the scene: “… 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. Actor’s 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. Collective lust roared unashamed at the theatre. In the revue Chocolate Kiddies, when Josephine Baker appeared naked except for a girdle of bananas, it was precisely as Lulu’s stage entrance was described by Wedekind: ‘They rage there as in a menagerie when the meat appears at the cage.’”
“Wedekind” was playwright Frank Wedekind, author of Der-Erdgeist (Earth–spirit, 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1904), both of which had already been combined four times for the movie screen. The Berlin newcomer who so vividly evoked the life during Weimar was about to take the lead in the fifth version, playing Lulu, the young sexpot who precipitated the ruination of men, fortunes, and, finally, herself. When director G.W. Pabst saw Louise Brooks in Howard Hawks’s A Girl in Every Port (1928), another silly flapper film that a myopic Hollywood could only seem to imagine for Brooks, he ended his two-year search for the perfect actress. By casting her above all the other German talent of the day, Pabst unwittingly launched Brooks into a three-film European career that ensured her cult status with silent film fans today.
German cinema in the late ’20s was moving away from the expressionist films that had made it famous, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), which were heavy on fantasy and chiaroscuro lighting, to the realistic portrayals of ordinary urban life of Strassefilm, or street films. Georg Wilhelm Pabst was one of this movement’s leading filmmakers. Born in what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Pabst began writing and producing films after World War I, making his directorial debut at the age of 37 with The Treasure (Der Schatz (1923). By the time he made his third film, The Joyless Street (Die Freudlosse Gasse, 1925), a gritty portrait of postwar Vienna featuring Greta Garbo and Asta Nielsen, he was considered among Germany’s best directors.
For the Kansas native Louise Brooks, who began as a dancer with the Denishawn company and later Ziegfeld’s Follies, the offer from Pabst gave her something to do after walking out on her Hollywood career. Cutting corners by cutting stars loose with the conversion to sound looming, Paramount production executive B.P. Shulberg offered to honor Brooks’s contract but without giving her the raise it stipulated. Stunning the powerful mogul, she quit without hesitation, and boarded a ship for Europe.
Pandora’s Box premiered at the Gloria-Palast in Berlin on February 9, 1929, to a tepid reception. German audiences were miffed at the selection of an American to play their Lulu, and she received only scant praise from critics. The film also suffered severe cuts at the hands of censor boards, who objected to Pabst’s portrayal of the seductive lead character. Later in December when Pandora’s Box opened in New York, U.S. audiences were subjected to a happy ending, one in which Lulu avoids death, instead joining the Salvation Army. But the freshly painted finale did nothing to mitigate the film’s lambasting by the critics, one of whom wrote bluntly, “Louise Brooks cannot act. She does not suffer. She does nothing.”
Pabst felt differently and, impressed by Brooks’s natural acting style, coaxed her into take the starring role in Prix de Beauté (1930), a film about a typist who wins a beauty pageant, which he was writing with French director René Clair. Set to shoot in Paris, production was delayed when Clair opted instead to make Sous les toits de Paris (1930). (Prix de Beauté was eventually directed by Augusto Genina.) In the meantime, Pabst cast Brooks as the lead in Diary of a Lost Girl, another Strassefilm in which she plays an outcast who eventually finds refuge in a Weimar-era bordello. Also brutally cut by censors, the ending was changed for showings in Europe, and Diary itself became lost in the tumult of talking pictures, Black Tuesday, and the impending worldwide depression.
Excited by the “aesthetic potential of sound,” Pabst had already moved on. He had cowritten Prix de Beauté to include sound sequences, and was eager to adapt Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera for the screen. Later, he spent a short stint in the U.S., directing only one picture, A Modern Hero (1934), for Warner Bros. He returned to Germany in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, where he stayed, making films under the Josef Goebbels-controlled Ufa. While none of his films can be called Nazi propaganda, Pabst remained productive throughout the war, and won a gold medal for best director for Komödianten at the Venice Film Festival in 1941. After the war, he immediately began to rehabilitate his reputation, making The Trial (1947), about anti-Semitism, and, later in 1955, two films about Hitler, The Last Ten Days and Jackboot Mutiny. He made his last film in 1956, Through the Forests, Through the Fields, about composer Carl Maria von Weber. Never completely forgiven for tolerating the Nazis, his place in film history improved only after the rediscovery of Louise Brooks in the mid-’50s.
Brooks had less success in movies than her beloved Pabst. She played a few roles in sound films, starring alongside John Wayne in her last, Overland Stage Riders (1938). Thereafter, she toured as a dancer, taught ballroom dancing, and eventually settled in New York City, where, fallen on very hard times, she worked briefly as a press agent for Walter Winchell and on the sales floor at Saks Fifth Avenue. Her reputation as an actress began its rehabilitation with the efforts of James Card, film curator at Eastman House, and Henri Langlois of the French Cinematheque, who united to restore Pandora’s Box to Pabst’s original uncensored version. Soon after its revival, Brooks began her final career, writing about film and her experiences in it. Her first article, published in 1956, was entitled “Mr. Pabst,” and, while describing the making of Pandora’s Box, she heaps praise on the director whom she calls a “revelation” and evokes those heady Weimar days “when Berlin rejected its reality … and sex was the business of the town.” Pabst died in Austria in 1967. Brooks, whose centennial happens this year in November, died in August 1985 at 79.
Presented at SFSFF 2006 with live music by Clark Wilson on the Mighty Wurlitzer