In honor of The Film Experience’s most recent entry in its “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, I’m finally going to talk about the woman whose visage graces the Pussy Goes Grrr banner. That’s right: we’re going to look at the quintessential flapper Louise Brooks and her best-remembered role – as Lulu in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), or Die Büchse der Pandora if you know German. The challenge of the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series is, fittingly, to pick your favorite shot from the film in question. Therefore, I’ve picked a single image to summarize how I feel about this movie. I decided to go minimalist.
This shot comes midway through the film, as Lulu lingers around the home of her now-dead lover Dr. Schön. She hears his son, Alwa, in the next room, and sneaks in on him, dressed only in her bathrobe. But before she does her sneaking, she peeks her head into the doorway and glances in. Her expression slowly changes from one of carefree curiosity to the seductive grin you see above. I just love how she’s occupying this in-between space, getting her act ready (Lulu’s always performing), about to descend upon Alwa.
Pabst’s complex, shifting mise-en-scène does such a great job of visualizing the terms of the film’s conflicts. Here, for example, we’ve got a single vertical line splitting the frame, concealing Lulu’s all-too-desirable body. It’s like a curtain about to rise. This image has other metaphorical implications that I like: 1) the opening door is obviously reminiscent of a certain mythical, evil-releasing act associated with Lulu, and 2) it’s a sign of how easily Lulu is able to navigate the confines of Pabst’s frame. This is a movie about an unstoppable force (Lulu) bypassing one immovable object after another. Lulu’s ease of movement reminds me of Chaplin in Modern Times; they’re both surprisingly capable of moving through crowds, social entanglements, and geopolitical boundaries.
I really enjoyed this shot from early in the film because it demonstrates the sheer energy and the unmatchable vivacity that Brooks brought to this role. Like other great silent actors/actresses, she could express herself visually as clearly as if she’d used her mouth. No words are necessary when you’ve got body language like Louise Brooks. Her physicality, her audacity, and her eroticism all bypass verbal self-expression entirely; throughout the film, she communicates strictly on a visual level.
This facet of her performance, in concert with Günther Krampf’s textured, gorgeous photography, make Pandora’s Box a supremely sensual film. Many of the male characters self-righteously complain about Lulu’s promiscuity, but ultimately everyone wants her to open that box. All their hypocrisies are proven false by the raw, beautiful power of Brooks’ performance. It’s a performance with so many subtexts; it’s one that encapsulates so many of the moral and sexual dilemmas of the 1920s, both in Germany and the United States. Brooks as Lulu takes every option into consideration.
This image looks almost like a religious ceremony in progress, as the Countess’s fixation on Lulu makes the rest of the party recede into the background. This moment, like so many in Pandora’s Box, is all about desire, and Pabst shows this with silence in ways that wouldn’t work with sound. If it had been made a couple years later, so many of the film’s subtleties would’ve been crushed under torrents of crackly dialogue and ambient noise. But, working at the tail end of the silent era, Pabst and his team turned out one of the most profoundly sensual, sexual films of that or any time.
Louise Brooks’ performance as Lulu calls to mind Norma Desmond’s famous battle cry: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” And what a face! Pandora’s Box is great erotic melodrama and social commentary, but above all it’s a triumph of iconography. Lulu is a mystery to the men around her, a fluctuating set of behaviors and whims, and since she’s a consummate silent actress, it’s all made manifest in her face. I’ll end with an image of an image; it suggests that no matter how often Lulu is treated as an object of the male gaze, they can never truly know her. She’s just unknowable. She’s Lulu. And she’s Louise Brooks.