Has there ever been a more perfect, more tragic, more mythic fusion of actor and character than Louise Brooks' Lulu in Pandora's Box? The girl with the "black helmet" hairdo may not have been German, and she certainly didn't go on a date with Jack the Ripper, but just about everything else in Brooks' life leading up to and following her signature 1929 role became, in some weird, extrasensory way, the blueprint for director G.W. Pabst's masterpiece of sexual suggestion.
It's not just that Brooks had as many or more notches in her bedpost than Lulu. At 21, the dancer-turned-starlet had already been evicted from Manhattan's Algonquin Hotel for "promiscuity," and had married, dated and tired of more men than Madonna could probably claim in twice that time. Many of them were for looks, some for a fleeting sense of love, and a few for advancing her career (or some combination of all three). So to Pabst, it simply made sense that America's most iconic flapper was born to play Germany's most innocent libertine, certainly more so than his second choice, the carnivorous, supremely self-conscious Marlene Dietrich.
What the director didn't know was that Brooks had more in common with "the girl raised in cafés" than just their shared profession of showgirl. Both Lulu and Brooks were damaged goods: Although raised by worldly, artistic, suffragist parents, the young Louise was made to feel shame when she was molested by a neighbor at the age of 9. Later, her "alligator" mother all but abandoned the family to become an influential lecturer. The pressure to achieve, coupled with a desire to exert control over her sexuality, would shape her life as a young adult clawing her way through the entertainment industry.
But the way in which the impetuous Brooks was transformed by playing the equally rash, demanding, unself-conscious Lulu is what truly vaulted Pandora's Box into legend. She took the role almost out of spite: She accepted the offer as she was storming off the set of a routine Hollywood picture. What she found in pre-Hitler Germany was a world of free love, free-flowing liquor and a focus on art like she'd never seen; it was as if her entire upbringing had prepared her for this.
Pabst encouraged in Brooks what was already evident: a subtle, intuitive acting style that was uncommon to silent stars, and so far ahead of its time that it took talkie actors almost 20 years to discover it. Brando may have gotten all the credit for introducing a new, raw style of acting to motion pictures in the '50s, but almost unconsciously, Brooks did it first. You can tell the difference the moment she walks into a room in Pandora's Box: Her movements aren't pitched to the back of the theater, but to the people with whom she interacts. Always the realist, Pabst cast her opposite men with whom she had genuine chemistry; when she was required to be grim and destitute, he would force her to stain her own clothing so she'd feel Lulu's pain.
Critics who dwell on her distinctive look – the skin as white as a geisha's, the severe bangs, the sinuous calves – miss the point. It's as much her manner as it is her beauty that makes the film endure. Even the best silent movies cultivated an ethereal fantasyland where the women were either intimidating and brassy or withering and consumptive. But Brooks managed to be neither: In Pandora's Box, she wants everything and nothing from you, and if you ask her to kill herself to end your misery, she just might consider the proposal before turning the gun against you. She makes Lulu's tragic, unconscious egotism painfully real: "Do you want nothing from me because you don't love me?" she asks her husband-to-be's son at one point. Brooks manages to play the line in a way that's not so much passive-aggressive as it is aggressive-aggressive: She forces every man – and more than a few women – to prove his or her love.
In a way, she's daring the audience to do the same. The reason the movie still connects with jaded, modern viewers is that you get the feeling that Brooks was the only one who was allowed to be real, and she was letting you in on the secret. Despite being surrounded by all the artifice and hardware of silent-era filmmaking – lighting equipment as big as golf carts, hammy supporting actors weaned on pantomime – she seemed to have a secret pact with the camera.
That someone so slight could summon such intensity, or exude such eroticism without seeming like a man-eater, was unheard of; in fact, it was so anathema to cinema that most critics panned the film, and her performance, upon its release in 1929. She wasn't acting, it was argued, she was just "being herself," which of course was exactly the point. Its brief run in the States – re-edited for a happy ending – made no impact whatsoever, at least initially, and the ever-stubborn Brooks returned to Hollywood a pariah, a starlet who wouldn't play the game.
Pabst once told her that he thought she'd end up like Lulu, and she did: not quite destitute enough to live under a bridge, but a victim of her own irrepressibility. She joined subpar dancing revues to eke out a living, and when that work dried up, she became an escort. If not for financial support from a former flame, she claimed she would've killed herself; had French critics not embraced the film in the late '50s (with the Americans following suit) it's possible Pandora's Box would've died an untimely death too.
The reclusive Brooks passed away in 1985, but after she let the American public back into her life in the late '70s, the lust for her seems to grow every year. With the exception of James Dean, no other screen icon is remembered for so little existing work. But one viewing of Pandora's Box shows you all you need to know: the way she grins like an exhibitionist when she's caught in flagrante delicto, or the way she regards a flickering candle with more affection than she ever could a man. For a movie that takes its title from Greek myth, it's only fitting that its star has become truly immortal.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 8-9, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 10.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].