BY AMBER KELLY-ANDERSON
Year released: 1929
How it fared back then: Based on a series of plays by Frank Wedekind, this German film starring American actress Louise Brooks was met with criticism. The German audience despised acclaimed Austrian director G.W. Pabst casting an American as doomed flirt Lulu (foreshadowing the uproar following Texan Renee Zellweger’s casting as beloved Brit singleton Bridget Jones). In Hollywood, Brooks was an outcast after breaking her Paramount contract over salary issues. Moreover, the film was released in several countries, including the United States and France, with a happy ending instead of Lulu’s death as an impoverished prostitute at the hands of Jack the Ripper. The resulting movie was reviewed as disjointed. Produced at the end of the silent era, the world was not ready for a psycho-sexual morality film and it received little attention, beginning, like its star, to fade into obscurity…
Why it’s lasted: …Until, in the 1950s, a number of critics re-evaluated the film for its progressive depictions of sexuality (including one of the first cinematic lesbians), unorthodox directorial choices (Pabst manipulated members of the cast against Brooks to make their performances more authentic, a la Lars Von Trier), and Brooks’ raw, erotically charged performance. The screen at times is similar to the men in Lulu’s life—too small to hold something so brimming with joy and energy. Brooks would later pen Lulu in Hollywood (a must-read about Hollywood’s sordid history) regaling her rise and fall as a woman, like Lulu, too wild and full of life to last. Her performance, despite being solely reliant on her face, never reads inauthentic or campy, but relevant and modern, even in its silent, black-and-white context. The audience loves her because, like the men, we cannot help it, even though she drains us all.
Classic moment: On her wedding night, Lulu captivates those in her vicinity, dancing with the Countess (Alice Roberts) while her new husband, Schön (Fritz Kortner) looks on; comforting Alwa (Franz Lederer), her stepson, when he collapses into her lap, weak with his love for her; and later battling Schön for her life as he attempts to force her to shoot herself. Brooks is gorgeous in her white satin wedding dress, gloriously vibrant until she accidentally shoots Schön in the struggle, her face tragic yet fixated on the dying man before her.
Does it still hold up? Lulu remains fashionably relevant—starlets frequently turn up with the “Louise Brooks Bob,” the razor sharp, angled chin-length coif that is instantly recognizable (Catherine Zeta Jones insisted on it for Chicago). Pabst’s films are outstanding examples of social commentary through melodrama and Pandora’s Box is one of his best pieces. For those outside the cinephile world, a German silent film might not be the best choice for Saturday movie night. It is, however, a must-see for those wanting to explore film history, dabble in German Expressionism and/or silent films, or be seduced by a timeless performance.
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