Thomas Elsaesser (essay date July 1983)
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...
(The entire section is 83,141 words.)