The 2023 Northern Silent Film Festival continues to delight audiences across the North of England with screenings of silent movie classics accompanied by live music. September’s showing of the 1929 German classic Pandora’s Box at Manchester’s Stoller Hall was no exception.
Lulu, played with exquisite sensuality by the 22-year-old American actress Louise Brooks, is introduced to the audience as a charming, carefree, flibbertigibbet flapper. It takes a while before we realise that she’s also selfish, capricious, manipulative and blithely heedless of the consequences of her actions, for herself and all those around her, and especially for those who love her. And oh, how they love her.
There’s old Schigolch, introduced as her ‘first patron’, a now thoroughly dishevelled derelict of a man. Then there’s the robust Rodrigo Quast, a variety artist and acrobat, desperate to have her in his act and, well, desperate to have her. And there’s Augusta Geschwitz, a lesbian countess who is besotted with Lulu. Finally, there is the lover, the wealthy middle-aged newspaper baron called Dr Ludwig Schön.
Let’s see, did I miss anyone? Oh yes, the best friend, Alwa who, aside from being secretly in love with her, is Schön’s son. With a suicidal lack of foresight, Schön suggests to his son that he give Lulu a big part in his upcoming variety show. To make matters even more fraught, Dr Schön tells Lulu that he’s giving her the elbow in favour of the altogether more socially acceptable Charlotte von Zarnikow, daughter of the Minister of the Interior.
Come opening night and we are treated to a manically entertaining backstage look at the legendary decadence of Weimar Germany’s cabaret scene. We also see Lulu throw an absolutely epic strop,when Dr Schön makes the mistake of bringing Charlotte. Lulu categorically refuses to dance in front of Dr Schön and his fiancée, thereby threatening to wreck Alwa’s opening night. With the big dance number approaching, Dr Schön drags the hysterical Lulu into a prop room to calm her down.
Brooks as Lulu is glorious here, lying face down on a pile of costumes, furiously beating her little fists into the blameless fabric, while at the other end her feet bounce up and down like a pair of well-heeled pistons.
Dr Schön’s efforts are partially successful, as Lulu eventually agrees to go on stage. But only after Alwa, accompanied by the hapless Charlotte with half the theatre hot on their heels, bursts into the prop room and discovers the two of them in a highly compromising position. Yes, Lulu has once again seduced Dr Schön.
At this point Lulu gazes with shameless defiance at the discoverers. That look will stay with me for the rest of my life. It’s a long, lingering look of pure sexual triumph, simultaneously terrifying, repellent and yet utterly beguiling. You simply can’t take your eyes off her, and it’s a look that guaranteed Brooks a place in cinematic history.
Lousie Brooks – a life
Brooks was a complicated person who led a fascinating life. A mid-western girl, she was born in Kansas in 1906 to a lawyer father, who devoted much of his time to his practice, and an artistic mother who was quoted as saying that any “squalling brats she produced could take care of themselves”.
Perhaps it’s not that surprising that Brooks left home aged 15 in 1922 to become a dancer in Los Angeles. But it is somewhat startling that, by 1925, she had a five-year movie contract with Paramount and was having an affair with Charlie Chaplin, the most famous man in the world.
By 1929, Brooks had a string of films and lovers behind her, and was regularly socialising with the rich and famous. But she’d become disillusioned with Hollywood, feeling that she wasn’t getting the parts or the pay she deserved. She became more and more recalcitrant in her dealings with Paramount and, by 1929, she was looking for a way out. She found one in the shape of G.W. Pabst.
Anyway, back to the movie and, having seen off her love rival, Lulu is now marrying Schön the elder.
Picture the scene: an opulent, society wedding reception and upstairs is a world of elegance and refinement, while below stairs it’s all hustle and bustle as liberty-taking servants dash madly about while Lulu’s first patron, along with the acrobat lover, gorge themselves at a private table in the kitchen.
Lulu floats carelessly between two worlds, an arrangement she no doubt imagines will continue in perpetuity. But Schön the elder discovers the first patron and the acrobat, along with Lulu, having a jolly knees-up in the married couple’s bedroom. He grabs a gun, chases the disreputable pair into the wedding reception, promptly destroying his marriage and his social standing in one go. As the guests leave there’s just time for him to pop back to the bedroom, have another massive row with Lulu, and attempt to convince her to take the gun and shoot herself.
There’s a struggle, he is shot accidentally, and in walks Schön the younger to discover the woman he desperately loves has just shot his dad stone dead. Quite a day, all things considered.
A superlative style
Audiences were spellbound by Brooks’ performance and her naturalistic style of acting. For those used to seeing the excesses of theatre reproduced on screen, with grand sweeping gestures and contorted facial expressions, Brooks’ acting style was sublimely subtle. She understood that the camera didn’t require exaggeration.
Of acting, she said that it “does not consist of descriptive movement of face and body but in the movements of thought and soul transmitted in a kind of intense isolation”. Later, the film critic Roger Ebert wrote that by employing this method “Brooks became one of the most modern and effective of actors, projecting a presence that could be startling”.
By the time Brooks accepted the role of Lulu she already had a cult following in Europe thanks to her role in the 1928 film, A Girl in Every Port.
Pabst had considered – and rejected – Marlene Dietrich for the part of Lulu. He believed that Brooks had the ability to project sexuality without any coyness or premeditation. In order to strengthen the impact of her naturalistic style, Pabst limited her to a single emotion per shot.
As for Pandora’s Box, there’s more to the film than already divulged, not least Lulu’s murder trial – will her feminine wiles be enough to avoid a guilty verdict? Will the son forgive her? What is Lulu’s fate?
A movie legacy
Pandora’s Box is rightly seen as a classic of the Silent Era. The Northern Silent Film Festival is doing a brilliant job in bringing these films back to 21st century audiences, and full credit to The Frame Ensemble (Elizabeth Hanks on cello, Trevor Bartlett on percussion, Jonny Best on piano) who provided a superb, sophisticated and insightful improvised score that greatly complimented the screening at Manchester’s Stoller Hall.
Meanwhile, Brooks starred in two more pictures in Europe before returning to Hollywood. Unfortunately, the studios hadn’t forgotten her earlier recalcitrance which, combined with poor decision-making on her part, saw her acting career end prematurely. In 1940 she left LA, eventually settling in New York where, by the end of the 1940s, she had resorted to alcohol (she’d been a heavy drinker since the age of 14) and prostitution, working regularly for an escort agency.
In the 1950s, a revival of interest in silent movies saw a new generation discover her films. The American film preservationist James Card encouraged her to embark on a successful career as a writer on film and cinema, providing Brooks, if not Lulu, with something of a happy ending.
Main image: Elizabeth Hanks on cello. Photo by Chris Payne.
For more information about the Northern Silent Film Festival 2023, including shows and tickets, click here.