“There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks.” — Henri Langlois
On this side of the 20th century, it’s hard to imagine a time in cinema history when Louise Brooks wasn’t an international silent icon, as revered as Dietrich or Garbo. But the actress with the unmistakable black helmet of hair nearly ended her career forgotten. She gave up the industry in 1938, after refusing the sexual advances of Columbia Pictures boss, Harry Cohn. “Brooks left Hollywood for good in 1940,” Geoffrey Macnab writes at The Independent, “drifted back to Kansas where, as a fallen Hollywood star, she was both envied for her success and despised for her failure.”
She would move to New York, work briefly as a press agent, then on the sales floor at Saks Fifth Avenue, after which, as she wrote in her autobiography Lulu in Hollywood, her New York friends “cut her off forever.”
Her two most legendary films, made in Berlin with German director G.W. Pabst, were critical and commercial failures only screened in heavily-edited versions upon release. Most of her silent Hollywood “flapper” comedies were deemed (even by Brooks herself) hardly worthy of preservation. It would take later critics and cinephiles like Kenneth Tynan and Henri Langlois, famed director of the Cinémathèque Française in 1950’s Paris, to resurrect her.
By 1991, Brooks was famous enough (again) to warrant a hit New Wave anthem by Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, who introduced a new, young audience to Pandora’s Box in their video (top) cut together from scenes of Pabst’s film. Pandora’s Box (see the trailer above) combines two plays by Frank Wedekind in a contemporary story about Berlin’s sexually free atmosphere during the Weimar era. Brooks plays Lulu, a seductress who lures men, and eventually herself, to ruin. “In her Hollywood films,” writes Macnab, “Brooks had been used (in her own words) as a ‘pretty flibbertigibbet.’ With Pabst as her director, she became an actress.”
As Brooks was rediscovered (learn more about her in the documentary below) and achieved a second round of fame as an essayist and memoirist — so too were the films of Pabst, who also directed Brooks in Diary of a Lost Girl. Both films had been shown in truncated versions. Pandora’s Box, especially, caused a stir on its release, upsetting even Weimar censors. German critics were unimpressed and audiences objected to the casting of the American Brooks. (Its American release substituted a happy ending for the film’s downbeat conclusion, Macnab notes, “one of the strangest death sequences in cinema: creepy, erotic and with a perverse tenderness.”)
According to Charles Silver, film curator at the Museum of Modern Art, “audiences of 1928 were not ready for the film’s boldness and frankness, even in few-holds-barred Weimar Berlin,” a city Brooks described with her usual candor:
… 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.’
Despite the film’s initial failure, in Berlin and in the character of Lulu, Brooks had found herself. “It was clever of Pabst to know,” she wrote, “that I possessed the tramp essence of Lulu.” A fiercely independent artist to the end, she rejected the opinions of critics and audiences, and heaped praise upon Pabst and “his truthful picture of this world of pleasure… when Berlin rejected its reality… and sex was the business of the town.”
You can purchase a copy of Pandora’s Box on DVD, courtesy of Criterion.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Enjoyed reading your piece. I launched the Louise Brooks Society website back in 1995, and it is still going strong. It amazes me still how popular Brooks remains, and how every few years, a new group of admirers discovers her anew. Louise Brooks is indeed a 20th century icon. Long live Lulu.
Thomas Gladysz / Director, Louise Brooks Society