By Heather Babcock
“The Greek Gods created a woman: Pandora. She was beautiful and charming, and versed in the art of flattery. But the gods also gave her a box containing all the evils of the world. The heedless woman opened the box, and all evil was loosed upon us.” – Pandora’s Box (1929) intertitle.
Unless you’re a silent film nerd like myself, you may not recognize the name Louise Brooks. However you most certainly are familiar with her iconic “Lulu” hairstyle: the shiny black bob with thick bangs. One of the most breathtakingly beautiful women of the silent era, Brooks had a natural charm and captivating screen presence that could only be matched by her “It-girl” peer Clara Bow and later, Bow’s successor Marilyn Monroe. Take it from me, just looking at photos of any of these women is a great endorphin booster.
The German silent film Pandora’s Box (1929) features Brooks at her most enchanting.
“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” Norma Desmond famously exclaims in Sunset Boulevard (1950). Brooks’ performance in Pandora’s Box (1929) gives flesh to this sentiment as the actress communicates feelings of sorrow, joy, disappointment, contentment, sexual desire and fear all using her eyes. It is one of the most moving performances of the silent era that I have yet seen.
In Pandora’s Box (1929), Brooks plays Lulu, a beautiful vaudeville dancer being kept by a (much older) wealthy newspaper publisher named Dr. Ludwig Schön. Lulu is coy but honest; intelligent yet naïve. She is open with her love and affections and is much too easily hurt. When Schön tells her that they need to end their affair because he is going to marry another (more socially prominent and thus respectable) woman, Lulu playfully asks “You won’t kiss me just because you’re getting married?” When she sees that he means business, she sadly proclaims “You’ll have to kill me to get rid of me.” Schön’s son asks him why he won’t marry Lulu. “One doesn’t marry such women!” he replies. “It would be suicide!” His words prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy when, after being dumped by his socially prominent fiancée, Schön reluctantly ends up marrying Lulu. Angry because marriage doesn’t break the spirit of the flirtatious, lively Lulu (which is kind of like being pissed off at a fish because all it wants to do is swim all day), Schön, in one of the most terrifying and suspenseful scenes I have ever seen on film, puts a gun in Lulu’s hand. Pointing it toward her face, he demands that she kill herself so that she doesn’t “drive him to murder as well”. Lulu manages to turn the gun around on him instead and Schön attempts one final kiss before he succumbs to his death. On trial for murder, Lulu charms everyone in the courtroom, even the state prosecutor who finds himself briefly taken with her beauty before getting a hold of himself and accusing her of being “Pandora” – the first human woman in Greek mythology – the woman who unleashed “all the evils of the world”. He demands the death penalty and Lulu is sentenced to prison but she escapes with the help of her father and some of her friends. Later some of these so-called friends begin to blackmail Lulu – threatening to go to the police unless she provides them with large sums of money. One such “friend” threatens to sell her to a brothel for three-hundred pounds. “I won’t be sold,” the heartbroken Lulu pleads. “That’s worse than prison.” She flees to London where she lives with her father and a friend in a shabby, rundown flat. It is Christmas Eve and we see happy families in warm windows as a Salvation Army band plays Christmas carols in the streets. Lulu and her family’s Christmas feast consists of a small loaf of stale bread and her father’s bootleg whiskey. After her father sighs that he’d like to “taste Christmas pudding once more before I die”, Lulu makes herself up and goes out to walk the streets to find a trick. She passes a sign pasted to a lamppost which reads:
WARNING TO THE WOMEN OF LONDON: FOR SOME TIME NOW A MAN HAS BEEN LURING WOMEN INTO DARK PLACES IN ORDER TO MURDER THEM.
Ignoring the sign, Lulu reaches out through the smoky shadows to a lone, morose looking man, standing by the lamppost. “I have no money,” he tells her. “Come along anyway,” Lulu smiles, feeling generous on the holy night, “I like you!” The man tries to match Lulu’s friendly smile but he can only manage a maniacal, toothy grin. We don’t need to see the knife clutched behind his back to know that she is the lamb and he is the wolf. Back at her flat, she sits on his lap and he kisses her under the mistletoe, his eyes filled with desire, not for Lulu but for the knife on the table behind her; its blade gleaming beside a flickering prayer candle. We see a close-up of Lulu’s hand as it opens and then falls; the darkness snuffing out the candle’s flame. Jack the Ripper leaves her then to disappear within the shadows of the tinsel toting carolers outside, who are blissfully unaware of the devil in their midst.
Pandora’s Box (1929) is a terrifying film; director G.W. Pabst uses extreme close-ups to create an intimacy with the characters to rattling effect. As Lulu, Brooks’ vulnerability is so visceral that it is sometimes painful to watch while Gustav Diessl’s performance as Jack the Ripper is positively bone chilling.
“They want my blood. They want my life”, Lulu laments in one scene. The men around her pin their fantasies on her external beauty at the expense of the human being inside. Lulu finds herself trapped in the web of the male gaze and, to add insult to injury, is then unfairly accused of herself being the spider.
Pandora’s Box (1929) is an exploration of sexual politics but it is also a study of the struggle between good and evil – the movie asks, is it a battle or a dance?
– Heather Babcock