G. W. Pabst Criticism - Essay

Thomas Elsaesser (essay date July 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Elsaesser, Thomas. “Lulu and the Meter Man: Louise Brooks, Pabst, and ‘Pandora's Box’.” Screen 24, no. 4 (July 1983): 4-36.

[In the following essay, Elsaesser explores Weimar culture's response to Pandora's Box and to the American actress Louise Brooks starring in the film.]


For several decades, G. W. Pabst's film, Die Büchse der Pandora/Pandora's Box (1928-29) was practically unavailable, except as one of the very special treasures of Henri Langlois' Cinemathèque in Paris. The star of the film, Louise Brooks, an actress from Wichita, Kansas, was to have one of the most enigmatic careers in film history. After the release of the two films she made with Pabst (the other one is Tagebuch einer Verlorenen/The Diary of a Lost Girl, 1929) she became a Paris cult figure in 1930, but on returning to Hollywood she virtually ceased appearing in films, and literally became a ‘lost one’. Langlois' infatuation with Louise Brooks made him feature a huge blow-up of her face—by then barely recognised by anyone—at the entrance of his 1955 ‘Sixty Years of Cinema’ exhibition:

Those who have seen her can never forget her. She is the modern actress par excellence because, like the statues of antiquity, she is outside of time … She is the intelligence of the cinematographic process, she is the most perfect incarnation of photogenie; she embodies in herself all that the cinema rediscovered in its last years of silence: complete naturalness and complete simplicity.1

Among those who could never forget Louise Brooks after Langlois' screenings of her films were Jean-Luc Godard (paying homage to Lulu in Vivre Sa Vie, 19622), and James Card, curator of Film at the George Eastman House, Rochester. He went in search of Louise Brooks in New York, found her in almost squalid circumstances, and brought her to live in Rochester, on a small Eastman House stipend. While he encouraged her to write and take an interest in her own past, he also tracked down and restored Pandora's Box, so that we now possess the image of Louise Brooks in this film as it had been seen by her first audience.

Pandora's Box was not a commercial success, and in the United States, for instance, only a cut and censored version3 was briefly in circulation, at a time when the new phenomenon of the talkies eclipsed and consigned to oblivion many of the more outstandingly modern films of the last silent period. In Germany, the film was widely shown and discussed, but Pabst was attacked on several fronts. Even his most consistent supporter, Harry M Potamkin, was disappointed and found the film ‘atmosphere without content’4. About Louise Brook's performance a Berlin critic wrote: ‘Louise Brooks cannot act. She does not suffer, she does nothing.’5

A good deal of criticism tried to prove Pabst's shortcomings as an adaptor of Wedekind's plays, and complained about the film industry's general temerity of turning a literary classic into a silent film with nothing but laconic intertitles.

Lulu is inconceivable without the words that Wedekind makes her speak. These eternally passion-laden, eruptive, indiscriminating, hard, sentimental and unaffected words stand out clearly against her figure. … The film is unable to reproduce the discrepancy between Lulu's outward appearance, and her utterance.6

This assessment is contradicted by Siegfried Kracauer, who writes in his book From Caligari to Hitler:

A failure it was, but not for the reason most critics advanced. … The film's weakness resulted not so much from the impossibility of translating (the) dialogue into cinematic terms, as from the abstract nature of the whole Wedekind play. … Pabst blundered in choosing a play that because of its expressive mood belonged to the fantastic postwar era rather than to the realistic stabilising period.7

The almost unanimously unfavourable response to the film is interesting in several respects. Even if we can assume special pleading on the part of the literary establishment, busy safeguarding its own territory8, the various complaints outline an ideologically and aesthetically coherent position. It goes right to the heart of the film's special interest within Weimar attitudes to sexuality, class and the representation of women in literature and the visual arts. For the passages quoted are indicative of a resistance that, on the one hand, has to do with the difference between literary language and body language (‘utterance’/‘appearance’)—reminiscent of more recent discussions in the area of sexual difference between speaking and being spoken as a subject in language. On the other hand, there is an evident irritation that Louise Brooks is neither active (‘she does nothing’), nor actively passive (‘she does not suffer’) which contrasts unfavourably one kind of body—that of cinematic representation—with another, the expressive body of the theatre performance. Compare this to Langlois' ‘(her) art is so pure that it becomes invisible’: praise that implies a diametrically opposite visual (and literary) aesthetic.

Pabst's choice of an American actress for the part caused consternation among German film-stars. It gives the issue a further dimension if one considers it within the large-scale emigration of German film-makers to Hollywood, the economic difficulties of the German film industry after the 1927 crash and especially UFA and Nero's bid to break into the American market. But ideological attitudes towards America also played their part. Louise Brooks recalls a telling incident:

As we left the theatre (at the opening of an UFA film, at the Gloria Palast, and Pabst) hurried me through a crowd of hostile moviegoers, I heard a girl saying something loud and nasty. In the cab, I began pounding his knee, insisting, ‘What did she say? What did she say?’ Finally, he translated: ‘That is the American girl who is playing our German Lulu’.9

Kracauer's comments rather simplify this whole ideological and aesthetic complex, with his implied juxtaposition of Expressionism and the Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’), but as so often, he has recognised a crucial tension in the film—even if, calling Pabst's choice of subject a blunder, he overlooks the extent to which the film actually reinterprets the inner relationship between Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit, since this ‘American’ Lulu gives Pabst a vantage point on both Expressionism and the Neue Sachlichkeit, as well as on the fundamental shift that the cinema (compared to the theatre) has brought to the representation of sex and class, libidinal and political economy.


When one wants to understand the place of the cinema in Weimar society and culture, Kracauer's work is still essential reading, even though it appears different now from the book it was when first published in 1946. Historians of Weimar culture consider the cinema as part of what makes Weimar Weimar, but they are certainly far from giving it the privileged status that Kracauer allows it, that of unlocking the Zeitgeist, the ever-elusive essence of an epoch. John Willett gives an apt summary in The New Sobriety:

There are existing studies that deal with the culture of the Weimar Republic between 1918-1933 much more broadly. ‘When we think of Weimar’, writes Peter Gay in the preface to his Weimar Culture, ‘we think of the Three-penny Opera, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, The Magic Mountain, the Bauhaus, Marlene Dietrich.’ More recently, that other eminent historian Walter Laqueur has defined its Zeitgeist in very similar terms as ‘the Bauhaus, The Magic Mountain, Professor Heidegger and Dr Caligari’.10

Laqueur, however, had added a proviso:

The fact that Marlene Dietrich has not been forgotten in 1974, while many of her contemporaries have faded from memory, need not necessarily mean that future historians of the cinema will have to share the preferences and prejudices of our time.11

I take this as an invitation to talk about Lulu, rather than Lola Lola.

The cinema is part of the colourful mosaic of the Zeitgeist, providing an easily recognisable iconography, the period flavour, or—again in John Willett's words—important mainly for its ‘atmospheric, essentially nostalgic relevance’12. Such is the general view, and it implies an idea of cultural diametrically opposed to that of Kracauer, for whom the cinema was not an addition, among the many forms of entertainment that flourished (Laqueur's account of Weimar cinema is the last part of a chapter called ‘Berlin s'amuse’) but its hidden centre. A period thinks, compul-represents and interprets itself—and its contradictions—in all the products of its social life, and among the means of self-representation, the cinema had for Kracauer an absolutely preeminent function. In this respect, Kracauer had already applied the lessons of structural analysis and social anthropology, and as Adorno put it: ‘his way of considering the cinema (as a cipher of social tendencies) has long since become common property, so much so that it is practically an unquestioned assumption underlying any serious reflection on the medium in general.’13

No fundamentally new or different history of the Weimar cinema has thus appeared since Kracauer's socio-psychological study of the ‘secret history involving the inner dispositions of the German people’14. And this despite the fact that in the field of economic film history particularly, and also textual criticism, many new perspectives have been opened up. The general impact has been that in the intervening time, scholars have become more careful in specifying who—that is, what class, what group—represented itself or was addressed, when ‘going to the movies’ became a regular habit. A somewhat different understanding of the nature and origin of German fascism has also made it less urgent to read ‘(the) disclosure of these dispositions through the medium of the German screen’ primarily as a ‘help in the understanding of Hitler's ascent and ascendancy’.15

Today, Kracauer is the historian of the social and sexual imaginary—the structures of anxiety, desire and denegation—that constituted the identity of the German lower middle class. They made up the bulk of the cinema-goers at the Gloria Palast and all the other high-street movie-palaces in Berlin and other German cities. What his book attempts, in a language that borrows some of its key analytical terms from Freudian and Adlerian psychoanalysis—regression, hysteria, impotence, compulsion, sublimation, instinct—is a metaphoric description of a dominant personality-type, whose characteristics are that he is male, paranoiac and masochistic, with repressed homosexual objects of identification. He experiences class barriers as insurmountable, and upward mobility a desire tantamount to parricide, punishable by social déclassement, a fate that, like the sword of Damocles, hangs over his head in any case. Kracauer offers a number of reasons why this class and its dominant character-type is representative for ‘the German people’ generally, and why it is reasonable to assume this to be the target audience of the films:

In a study published in 1930 (Die Angestellten) I pointed out the pronounced ‘white collar’ pretensions of the bulk of German employees, whose economic and social status in reality bordered on that of the workers, or was even inferior to it. Although these lower middle-class people could no longer hope for bourgeois security, they scorned all doctrines and ideals more in harmony with their plight, maintaining attitudes that had lost any basis in reality.16

Kracauer's emphasis on personality-structure and psychoanalysis implies a double thesis: firstly, that political and economic life have a shaping effect on the ‘logic’ of psychic development, and secondly, that cinematic fictional narrative is a particularly efficient way of crystallising dispositions into attitudes. The two theses have a separate theoretical status, as recent debates make only too clear.17 Or, one can interpret the implications as a feminist as done:

From Caligari to Hitler consistently and repetitiously depicts … a national, middle-class, Oedipal/familial failure peculiar to Germany and its cinema. … Beneath its sociological pretense is a perverse discourse on sexuality. … (The) argument places the blame on the domestic family, or historically, patriarchy …, a massive failure of the family to properly inscribe males into the symbolic of paternal order.18

That definitions of masculinity and male identity were in crisis during the Weimar years is not especially new: Peter Gay more or less built the thesis of his book around the father-son conflicts of Expressionist literature and drama. When Walter Laqueur says the opposite about the cinema (‘one looks in vain, among German films, for the father-son conflict so prominent on the stage’) he indicates either a very literal understanding of the motif, or that he has not looked very far, even in Kracauer. Current studies about ‘male fantasies’ in the literary and semi-literary products of the time, have continued to explore the manifestations of male paranoia and repressed homosexuality.19

But what Kracauer also argues is that the depictions of Oedipal conflicts and their modes of narrative resolution in the films are so paranoid and perverse because they are a ‘screen’, a field of projection and a compensation for objectively insoluble political contradictions and immovable class barriers. Sexuality—always an overdetermined cultural code—becomes the site for the representation of highly ambiguous fears (ambiguous, because libidinally charged) about any social existence outside the bourgeois order, outside the law, outside the hierarchical markers of identity and difference recognised by the middle class. This is not to say that the representation of sexual conflict, or the many family tragedies in the Weimar cinema simply substitute themselves for the ‘real’ tragedy of class conflict and economic ruin. Such a view would imply an almost trivial understanding of the Freudian notion of the unconscious, and a serious confusion of levels. The bourgeois film of the Weimar period does indeed have a narrative structure whose symbolic code remains remarkably constant throughout the '20s: it is Kracauer's achievement to have pointed this out. But it does not follow from this that the class conflicts of the period are structured in strict analogy to the stages of the Oedipal conflict. If the various revolutions on the Left failed, it is not because its militants were held back by castration anxiety. However, it is quite another matter if in the fictional and ideological discourses of the period, sexuality and the family become symbolic sites for the construction of political ideology.

To give a historical example. In 1925 the Austrian newspaper editor and writer, Hugo Bettauer, author of Die Freudlose Gasse (The Street of Sorrow, adapted by GW Pabst, and filmed the same year) was assassinated in Vienna. He had been the popular editor of Bettauers Wochenschrift, a journal of progressive social views advocating free love. He was also a Jew. His assassin, a 20-year-old, unemployed, first-generation immigrant from Czechoslovakia, had proven connections with the Austrian Nazi Party and was an avid reader of millenarian political tracts. The trial, which incidentally acquitted him, was entirely preoccupied with the question of whether Bettauer's journal was pornographic and morally corrupting. The young man claimed that it was, and that he had acted spontaneously, out of moral outrage. The jury essentially accepted his plea. What seems interesting in the case is that in a social climate rife with class, ethnic, and party-political conflict and close to civil war, sexuality is the preferred field on which ideological conflict and difference can legitimate itself, to the point of justifying politically and ethnically motivated assassination. Otto Rothstock did not kill in Bettauer the symbolic father, but he did find in sexual outrage a subject position that sufficiently unified the contradictions of his social existence (non-integrated minority, unemployment, ambitions towards gentility) in order for him to act in what seemed to him a politically meaningful way. On his side, Hugo Bettauer, a sex-and-crime formula novelist, found in the sexological articles he published a lucrative market among the semi-literary bourgeoisie for his socially progressive views. For him, too, sexuality implied a political and moral position. The assassin supported his confused political aspirations by modelling himself on particularly rigid conceptions of sexuality and sexual difference. The victim, on the other hand, supported different though perhaps also vague and indeterminate political goals and views with an inverse, open, ‘free’ conception of sexuality and individual identity.

To what extent then, one might want to ask, did the very existence of Freudian psychoanalysis and the many sexological investigations that emerged in its shadow and vicinity give the question of sexuality a different social space? Did they reinforce, or on the contrary, limit the kind of metaphoric haemorrhage that makes the period's ideologies of race, of power and authority, of State and the Law, of the Soul and the Will, seem to us so many versions of the same ‘perverse discourse on sexuality? An intense curiosity focused on Woman is undeniable, but it antedates the Weimar period. Freud's hesitations, and his cautious remarks about the ‘dark continent’ of female sexuality were not always heeded by his followers: definitions of the ‘nature’ of Woman proliferated, precisely because in search of an elusive essence, femininity was so often construed in the negative or oppositional image of a masculinity in crisis. Structurally related to the endless father-son conflicts, where male sexuality appears in its most classically Oedipal fixations, and where women are either terrified bystanders or non-existent, one finds in Weimar culture also the sexually predatory and aggressive woman—phallic mothers, on whom the male subject projects both castration anxieties and masochistic fantasies. But there is a third possibility—and this one seems to me relevant for Pandora's Box—rarely in evidence in either the avant-garde or the ‘serious literature’ of the time and nonetheless perhaps the single most striking characteristic of its popular culture: sexual ambiguity, androgyny, the play with sexual roles and the fascination attached to the realm between male and female—Isherwood's Berlin, if you like, but also Magnus Hirschfeld's research institute. Yet it documents itself most vividly in the cabarets and the variety-shows, the fashion pages or the photography and drawings in quality magazines for a popular audience, like Die Dame. Pabst's Lulu—this is the question—is she the demonic female or a Weimar flapper?


The figure of Lulu that Wedekind portrays in Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora20 superficially belongs to the tradition of the femme fatale, the sexually alluring but remote woman, through whom men experience the irrational, obsessional and ultimately destructive force of female sexuality. The social and historical dimension of the figure is too complex to be discussed here, but many of the literary or visual embodiments, especially in the late nineteenth century, project onto the desired woman an aggressiveness and destructiveness whose subjective correlative is guilt and self-punishment: for transgression, for violation, perhaps for desire itself. In Baudelaire, Huysmans, Gustave Moreau this figure is a stylisation and a character often from mythology (Salomé, Judith, the feminised Sphinx) whose location in the Orient and among the spoils of colonial wars or conquests gives a glimpse of a specifically political source of desire and guilt. In Strindberg, Munch or Klimt the figure is more a reminder of the violations of nature and instinctual life by the ascending bourgeois society and its consolidation of the family. With Wedekind, a specific social milieu, marked by class division, comes into view.

More explicitly than anyone else, he locates the question of sexuality within an ideological field. The repression of almost all manifestations of female sexuality entails an intense eroticism suffusing everything that is a-social, primitive, instinctual, according to a topos that sees nature as devouring whenever its nurturing function has been perverted. At the same time, Wedekind saw very precisely the relationship between social productivity and sexual productivity that the bourgeoisie had fought so hard to establish, and which lay at the heart of its ‘sexual repression’: it was the energy that had to be subjected to the labour-process, regulated and accounted for. The bourgeois subject, for whom sexual passion is nothing but the reverse of all the frustrations that make up his social and moral existence, is contrasted with the members of the lumpenproletariat—those outside, unassimilable or scornful when it comes to the bourgeois' dialectic of renunciation and productivity.

By locating a deviant, instinctual and liberating social behaviour among circus people, artistes, petty criminals, and calling it sexual passion, Wedekind builds a fragile bridge with another class that also felt itself outside the bourgeois order, the declining aristocracy against whose notions of libertinage, of productivity and non-production, of waste and display, the codes of the bourgeoisie once developed themselves. A non-repressive sexuality thus becomes the utopia where the lumpen-class and the aristocracy meet in mutual tolerance and indulgence: the cliché situation of so many Viennese operettas and popular literature fantasies, the ones that served film directors from Stroheim to Ophuls.

This kind of identification cannot maintain itself other than as a projection that also invests the ‘other’ with the attributes that the self lacks. The attraction of the bourgeois for the lumpenproletariat, however, arises not from the similarity of position vis-à-vis a common antagonist, but out of an opposition. Wedekind's Lulu is without family ties, without social obligations, without education or culture. Her psychological existence is free of guilt and conscience, her physical existence the very image of beauty, youth and health. Being outside the social order, she belongs to ‘nature’—the only non-social realm that the plays can envisage. Sexuality therefore constructs itself primarily through negative categories, where non-family equals amorality, and the non-social becomes the ‘wild’ on the animal level, or the tropical plant in the vegetal realm. Several layers of self-projection are superimposed, yet it is the sympathy of the aristocrat for the lumpen (one outcast for another) that provides the basis for the glamourisation of these negative, somewhat demonic categories.

To leave it at this, is to suggest a very schematic reading of the plays. Wedekind's Lulu is in a sense not only a more radical critique of bourgeois notions of sexuality, but also of the myth of the femme fatale itself. By critique I do not mean a denunciation or a persuasively argued case for or against. For Wedekind, Lulu is a construct, not a sociological portrait: she represents in all her manipulative deviousness the only constant value, set against the relativity and dissolution of the so-called absolute and transcendental values. This, one suspects, is also because Wedekind endows her with a kind of articulacy and energy that makes her the next-of-kin of another outcast altogether: the artist, traitor to his class—whether aristocratic or bourgeois. She voices not only the artist's disgust with the members of all classes, but with himself, which is why her predatory lust is allowed to vent itself against members of all constituted classes and convictions.21 Wedekind's notion of female sexuality is thus even more abstract and conceptual than that of the French decadents. As the guise that the artist gives himself, she is distant and alluring, devouring and irresistible. As a woman, she remains terra incognita. For Wedekind, the conflict between class and productivity, between class and sexuality resolves itself only through the intermediary of art, and of an art that understood its own productivity as a form of elemental, natural expressivity. Lulu is characterised by her expressivity, because she is conceived in response to a societal repressivity.22

The space where such an expressivity could articulate itself is the theatre. Voice and gesture, thought and body could be unified in the performance and thus represent what one might call an image of non-alienated existence, the enactment of ‘destiny as pure present’,23 even if Wedekind is careful to relativise the tragic pathos of his figure by such ‘epic’ devices as the prologue, the ringmaster and the animal imagery of the circus, as well as stating in the preface that Geschwitz, not Lulu, is the tragic figure.24


The cinema, however, is still silent. Its expressivity, the way it speaks to the mind and the senses is different, and different affective values attach themselves to gesture, decor or face. With it, the relation of expression to repression changes; conflict and contrast, antinomies and argument are suggested, and perceived by an audience, in forms specific to the cinema.

When Leopold Jessner staged Die Büchse der Pandora in 1911, he had written:

Lulu is honest, because she is woman, only woman, who however, has succumbed to the pleasure of the senses, in an elementary form (Urwüchsigkeit) that cannot but bring disaster to us civilised beings, removed as we are from animal instincts.25

In 1923 he made a film called Loulou, with Asta Nielsen in the title role. Louise Brooks, who saw the film, describes Jessner's conception and Asta Nielsen's performance as follows:

There was no lesbianism in it, no incest. Loulou, the man-eater devoured her sex-victims—Dr Goll, Schwarz, Schoen—and then dropped dead in an acute attack of indigestion.26

To Louise Brooks Loulou is pure camp, because the relationship between theatrical and cinematic body-language is so different; Jessner's conception of cinema is clearly felt to be inadequate, even though his conception of the figure (‘Lulu is honest’) would be completely endorsed by Louise Brooks. The cinema itself, and not least the American cinema, had drastically changed what was to be accepted as ‘honest’ in the visual representation of sexuality and affect. Fritz Rasp, also a favourite actor of Pabst's (Diary of a Lost Girl, Love of Jeanne Ney, Threepenny Opera) recognised this very well:

The first law of film acting has been for me, right from the start, to be very reticent with my gestures. When I came from theatre to the stage, I realised that acting for the living image meant a complete break with the theatre, and that the strongest visual effects are … achieved solely through the complete internalisation of a role, for which one is the right physical type. That is why I prefer working for directors who have … recognised my physical appearance … so that acting in film, although this may seem paradoxical, is for me today not ‘acting’ at all, but—‘being’.27

Another aspect needs to be remembered, one that points to a sociological difference between theatre and cinema, in respect of audiences—that is to say, in respect of the kinds of visual pleasure, curiosity and emotion that might bind an audience to the cinema. Wedekind's plays engage an audience's curiosity on a double level: the interest in the representation and dramatisation of raw sexual desire is coupled with the gratification of a social curiosity that allows glimpses at the private pleasures and vices of the ruling classes. In Berlin of the late '20s, by contrast, as Louise Brooks remarks:

the ruling class publicly flaunted its pleasures as a symbol of wealth and power.28

Not only could the film not expect to shock with revelations, the curiosity and fascination which Pabst's Büchse der Pandora wanted to arouse had to be of a quite different nature. Again, Louise Brooks:

At the Eden Hotel, where I lived in Berlin, 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. Actors' 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, … Josephine Baker appeared naked except for a girdle of bananas. …29

Louise Brooks' description of ‘collective lust’ not only highlights the sexually explicit, but also the sexually ambiguous aspect of Berlin high- and low-life. In this respect, the world of entertainment is clearly also part of what defines sexuality and sexual difference for society as a whole.

But once it is no longer prescribed in biological categories (and roles do not divide strictly along the lines of gender), sexuality becomes itself more than a social product: a symbolic structure that can articulate other values, distinctions and categories. In Pabst's film, for instance, Lulu's sexual attraction is invariably portrayed in the context of sexually ambiguous attributes. Throughout the relationship with Dr Schoen, it is her androgynous body that is emphasised. With Alwa Schoen, an incestuous and homosexual element is always present. At her wedding, Pabst makes her dance most sensuously with the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, and on the gambling boat, she lets herself be seduced by a young sailor, in order to exchange clothes with him. Following on directly from this reversibility of attributes seems to be the principal ambiguity that preoccupied critics of Lulu, both in the plays and the film—whether she is a victim or an agent, whether she has a passive or an active role in the events of which she is the centre. Wedekind himself writes:

Lulu is not a real character, but the personification of primitive sexuality who inspires evil unaware. She plays a purely passive role.30

Yet this conception of Lulu as a catalyst of the obsessions and neuroses, of the restless searching for meaning and value among the men she encounters, is rendered ambiguous precisely because she is a ‘personification’. As such she has a positive presence, because for Wedekind ‘primitive sexuality’ does constitute an expressive potential as well as a creativity that is close to an absolute, the presumed ‘essence’ of woman.31 Critics did not always see Lulu as ‘purely passive’. An English reviewer wrote:

Wedekind reacted against German Naturalism and his plays are as full-blown and direct as anything the Elizabethans could produce; indeed, the nearest parallel to his Lulu cycle is The Duchess of Malfi, except that in the former case the woman is the active principle of evil.32

Agency is a crucial question because in our society moral evaluation of guilt or innocence, evil or virtue attaches itself to intentionality and agency. Given the traditional division of sex and gender in terms of active and passive, Lulu's behaviour would find itself interpreted accordingly, and thus her function as a figure of projection for fantasies of power and control is also at stake.

Pabst, it seems to me, resituates all these questions, firstly by a script that drastically reduces the number of protagonists and simplifies their narrative functions, and secondly, by his choice of actress. The narrative, apart from stressing sexual ambiguity, involves the male protagonists (except Schigolch) in a perpetually brooding, scheming, angry and frustrated state, the very parody of inwardness in search of expression and self-realisation. Against this world, obsessed with intentionality, goals and motives, Lulu appears exacerbating and provocative, ie seductively sexual—because she is a being of externality, animated but without inwardness; attentive, but without memory; persistent, but without willpower or discipline; intelligent but without self-reflexiveness; intense but without pathos. Her superiority resides in the fact that these effects-without-causes are experienced by the men as both fascinating and a threat.

As to the choice of actress, the cameraman Paul Falkenberg reported:

Preparation for Pandora's Box was quite a saga, because Pabst couldn't find a Lulu. He wasn't satisfied with any actress at hand, and for months everybody connected with the production went around looking for a Lulu. I talked to girls on the street, on the subway, in railway stations …33

Louise Brooks had her own conception of the role. She, too, seems inclined to see Lulu as a victim, although elsewhere she says that at the end, Lulu ‘receive(s) the gift that has been her dream since childhood. Death by a sexual maniac’.34 Here is why she thought the film controversial:

(Besides) daring to show the prostitute as victim, Mr Pabst went on to the final damning immorality of making his Lulu as ‘sweetly innocent’ as the flowers that adorned her costumes and filled the scenes of the play. … How Pabst determined that I was his unaffected Lulu, with the childish simpleness of vice, was part of the mysterious alliance that seemed to exist between us. … When Pandora's Box was released in 1929, film critics objected because Lulu did not suffer after the manner of Sarah Bernhardt in Camille. Publicity photographs before the filming of Pandora's Box show Pabst watching me with scientific intensity. … (He) let me play Lulu naturally … And that was perhaps his most brilliant directorial achievement—getting a group of actors to play unsympathetic characters, whose only motivation was sexual gratification. Fritz Kortner, as Schön, wanted to be the victim. Franz Lederer, as the incestuous son Alva Schön, wanted to be adorable. Carl Goetz wanted to get laughs playing the old pimp Schigolch. Alice Roberts, the Belgian actress who played the screen's first lesbian, the Countess Geschwitz, was prepared to go no further than repression in mannish suits.35

It is quite possible to see the film in the terms that Louise Brooks suggests: Lulu is a child-like creature, and her attraction resides in the incorruptibility, the lack of guile, menace, calculation, the simple pleasures she enjoys, among which are sex, but it could be the bulging biceps of a trapeze artist, the sight of old Schigolch in the doorway, the fashion page in an illustrated journal, or mistletoe at Christmas-time. But Lulu is not one of those obsessional figures of the Victorians—a child bride or Browning's ‘Last Duchess’. Her sexual ambiguity and indeterminacy has nothing to do with puberty. Just as Pabst seems concerned to redefine active and passive, so he is at pains not to take up Wedekind's paradigm of the anti-social as identifiable with animal nature or tropical vegetation (it is Dr Schoen who keeps a particularly wild and luxuriant plant in his office). She is modern, in a manner that at the time would have been labelled ‘American’, even without the choice of a Hollywood actress for the part and the ballyhoo this created. But the film does not make ‘Americanism’ an issue as did Pabst's Joyless Street. On the contrary, it gives us a Lulu practically without origin, or particular cultural associations. No doubt, because it allows for a much more ‘symbolic’ configuration: Pabst's Lulu in her relations with Schoen father and son, as well as on the gambling boat, acts as a stake for male/male power play, and her role is circumscribed by a male double fantasy: she is the woman that father and son both want to possess; she is also the phallic mother whom they want to destroy, the father by demanding that she kill herself, the son by wishing her to act out his own parricidal desire, so that his guilt feelings become her crime. In this respect, the film takes up in elegantly condensed figurations some of the main themes and motifs of Kracauer's (male, paranoiac) German soul. But the very elegance and sophistication of Pabst's narrative and visual solutions indicates that Pandora's Box is not primarily about the secrets of this (German) soul: more a knowing allusion to homosexual latency, and a deconstruction of the pathos of repression/expression. A central complex of German Expressionism is inspected with serene indifference, an indifference to which Lulu gives a...

(The entire section is 15749 words.)

Linda Schulte-Sasse (essay date spring 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schulte-Sasse, Linda. “A Nazi Herstory: The Paradox of Female ‘Genius’ in Pabst's Neuberin Film Komödianten (1941).” New German Critique 50 (spring 1990): 57-84.

[In the following essay, Schulte-Sasse examines the unique place of Komödianten as a movie featuring a woman in the genre of Nazi “genius” films.]

Ob Männer oder Frauen, ist ganz wurscht:
Eingesetzt muß alles werden

—Hitler, March 1945

G. W. Pabst's film biography of Caroline Neuber, Komödianten (1941), follows in most respects the paradigm of the “genius” films that pervaded Nazi cinema in the early forties. These films extol...

(The entire section is 11361 words.)

Thomas Elsaesser (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Elsaesser, Thomas. “Transparent Duplicities: The Threepenny Opera (1931).” In The Films of G. W. Pabst: An Extraterritorial Cinema, edited by Eric Rentschler, pp. 103-15. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Elsaesser argues in favor of The Threepenny Opera's merits as a great achievement in Weimar cinema despite a lawsuit filed against Pabst by Bertolt Brecht—the author of the opera upon which Pabst's film is based.]


To write about Pabst's The Threepenny Opera (Die 3-Groschen-Oper, 1931) is to venture into a minefield of received opinions. Even if one...

(The entire section is 8910 words.)

Anne Friedberg (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Friedberg, Anne. “An Unheimlich Maneuver between Psychoanalysis and the Cinema: Secrets of a Soul.” In The Films of G. W. Pabst: An Extraterritorial Cinema, edited by Eric Rentschler, pp. 41-51. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Friedberg explores the relationship between cinema and psychoanalysis in light of Pabst's experiences making Secrets of a Soul.]

“Mass culture is psychoanalysis in reverse.”

—Leo Löwenthal

The coincident birthdates of psychoanalysis and the cinema have frequently been celebrated as “no accident.”...

(The entire section is 7378 words.)

Michael Geisler (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Geisler, Michael. “The Battleground of Modernity: Westfront 1918 (1930).” In The Films of G. W. Pabst: An Extraterritorial Cinema, edited by Eric Rentschler, pp. 91-102. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Geisler examines the ways in which Pabst's film Westfront 1918 reflects Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic rather than the events of World War I depicted in the film.]

A number of major texts in film history have never been accorded their due because more popular contemporary releases have pre-empted the audience's as well as the critics' attention and interest. Pabst was twice unlucky in this...

(The entire section is 8004 words.)

Eric Rentschler (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rentschler, Eric. “The Problematic Pabst: An Auteur Directed by History.” In The Films of G. W. Pabst: An Extraterritorial Cinema, edited by Eric Rentschler, pp. 1-23. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Rentschler discusses Pabst as a “problematic” figure in cinema.]

“None of us who knew Pabst well felt that we ever knew him at all. He was all things to all men, and nothing consistently. He would argue any side of the question with apparent complete conviction and sincerity, but to see this happen over and over was to suspect that he had no convictions at all. He worked like a scientist,...

(The entire section is 13540 words.)

Russell A. Berman (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Berman, Russell. “A Solidarity of Repression: Pabst and the Proletariat.” In Cultural Studies of Modern Germany: History, Representation, and Nationhood, pp. 123-33. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Berman contends that Pabst's allegedly left-wing film Kameradschaft is actually ambivalent on the issue of proletarian liberties.]

The lesson of Nolde's vicissitudes in Nazi Germany involves the limits of intentionality: the painter's desire to identify with the fascist state was unable to influence the state's rejection of the painter. A similar disjunction operates in the case of Pabst's Kameradschaft...

(The entire section is 5547 words.)

Ira Konigsberg (essay date fall 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Konigsberg, Ira. “Cinema, Psychoanalysis, and Hermeneutics: G. W. Pabst's Secrets of a Soul.Michigan Quarterly Review 34, no. 4 (fall 1995): 519-47.

[In the following essay, Konigsberg examines Secrets of the Soul in the context of films that feature psychoanalysts as either saviors or demons.]

In the 1948 film The Snake Pit, a psychiatrist (played by Leo Genn) has a long therapeutic session with a patient (played by Olivia de Havilland) in which he slowly opens up to her two earlier traumas that have resulted in her nervous breakdown and incarceration in a mental institution. A photograph of Sigmund Freud prominently appears on the...

(The entire section is 12652 words.)