Revisit Louise Brooks’ Most Iconic Role in the Too-Sexy-for-Weimar Silent Film Pandora’s Box (1928)

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Extreme­ly Rare Tech­ni­col­or Film Footage from the 1920s Dis­cov­ered: Fea­tures Louise Brooks Danc­ing in Her First Fea­ture Film

10 Clas­sic Ger­man Expres­sion­ist Films: From Nos­fer­atu to The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari

Enjoy the Great­est Silent Films Ever Made in Our Col­lec­tion of 101 Free Silent Films Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Thomas Gladysz says:

    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

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