LOOKING FOR LULU
Enigmatic silent film star Louise Brooks continues to spark interest as a newly restored version of her landmark movie is released, writes Philippa Hawker
SHE’S THE SORT OF CHARACTER WHERE YOU COULD LOOK AT THE FILM HUNDREDS OF TIMES AND SEE SOMETHING DIFFERENT IN HER
The 1929 silent film Pandora’s Box has a special place in the history of cinema; it is a vehicle like no other for its star, Louise Brooks, who gives a performance of startling modernity, as the very embodiment of desire. It’s a performance whose power endures. Angela Carter, reviewing a biography of Brooks, told the story of how she showed Pandora’s Box to graduate writing students as part of a course on 20th-century narrative. She was a little apprehensive: would these “children of the television age” be able to watch a silent film? They “sat like mice”, she recalled, and when the film ended, there was a silence. “Then a young man said: ‘ That was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in the movies.’ And they all said: ‘Yes. The most beautiful. The best performance. Who is she? What else did she do?’ ”
A newly restored version of Pandora’s Box has some rare screenings in Australia, accompanied by a haunting live score for string quartet from Australian composer Jen Anderson, who returns to a work she first created almost 25 years ago.
Anderson, a classically trained violinist who has played in bands such as the Black Sorrows and Weddings, Parties, Anything, was commissioned to create a score for a version of the film (the original was lost) that was screened in Australia in 1993 and 1994.
Recently she realised there was a newly restored version of Pandora’s Box — funded in part by Hugh Hefner — that had been seen in Europe and the US several years ago. Finding, to her surprise, that it had not screened in Australia, she decided to bring it here herself.
“I really wanted Australian audiences to see it,” she says.
This latest version has been digitally restored, and it’s a more fluid expression of the director’s vision. The first screening was at the Astor Theatre, in Melbourne, a grand art deco cinema that boasts in its upstairs foyer a moviestar mural that includes an image of Brooks in a black tutu. There are two confirmed dates for later shows: one is in Canberra next week, another at Port Fairy in October, and negotiations are in train for other cities. It is a work she’d love to take far and wide.
Brooks herself is a figure to conjure with. Her career in Hollywood was fleeting; it is the films she made in Europe, just before the sound era, that have made her an indelible part of cinema history. Yet she knew the world well: towards the end of her life she became a valuable source of information about early Hollywood and its figures, an astute and articulate observer.
Brooks, born in 1906 in Kansas, began her creative life as a dancer. At 15 she left home to travel to New York to study with the Denishawn company, pioneers of modern dance. She progressed swiftly from student to company Movie star Louise Brooks and a film poster for Pandora’s Box, below; in a still from the same film, right; with koala (c. 1928), far right; Australian composer Jen Anderson, inset member — alongside a young Martha Graham — and took a lead role in one of the new works. But she was asked to leave, apparently for her difficult attitude. This was to become a theme in her life.
She found work of a very different kind, first as a showgirl and then as a featured performer in the Ziegfeld Follies. By 1925 she had started out in the movies, with a succession of small roles that gradually began to build into a career.
In 1928, director Howard Hawks cast her in a buddy movie, a silent film called A Girl in Every Port; she played a carnival high diver who almost destroys the relationship between two men who are close friends. In France, it was considered the harbinger of a new cinema: cinephile Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinematheque Francaise, saw it at the age of 15 and it became a touchstone film for him. It also made him one of Brooks’s most passionate and influential advocates.
German director GW Pabst saw it and was convinced he had found the actress he was seeking for Pandora’s Box, a screen adaptation of two controversial plays by Frank Wedekind.
She was under contract to Paramount: Pabst contacted the studio asking for permission to use her in the film. Brooks was in discussion about her salary at the time. When Paramount’s chief, BP Schulberg, told her she wouldn’t be getting a raise, she said she was leaving. He told her about Pabst’s offer and she accepted it immediately, without reading the script.
Her telegram of acceptance came just at the right moment. Pabst had almost given up on finding his ideal Lulu and was about to offer the role to Marlene Dietrich, somewhat reluctantly — he felt she was too worldly for the part.
Brooks is extraordinary in the film, as a young woman who seems at first to be the most airily manipulative of creatures. Lulu, a dancer and performer, is direct and elusive at the same time: Manet’s Olympia, but in motion — the incarnation of female sexuality.
Her hair is cut in her trademark gleaming black bob, with a texture and sheen that seems both animal and mineral. She is quicksilver, yet expressive in stillness, as the camera captures the graceful strength of her neck or the curve of her shoulder.
Lulu is kept by a middle-aged newspaper magnate, Schon (Fritz Kortner), whose son (Franz Lederer) is equally smitten by her. Women, as well as men, are in her thrall: she knows how to manipulate Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) when she needs to. The elderly Schigolch (Carl Goetz) — a pimp and father figure — is still part of her life.
Gradually, we begin to see how she is viewed, how the men around her regard her as something to be bought or sold.
In Brooks, Pabst found an actress who could capture all the contradictions and complexities of Lulu, seemingly without artifice or calculation; Langlois speaks of the way “the camera seems to have caught her by surprise, without her knowledge … her art is so pure that it seems invisible”.
Decades later, it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing Brooks for the first time could think otherwise. Yet the film was poorly received in Europe and the US when it was released, and Brooks was singled out for criticism or dismissal, in terms that are hard to fathom.
The New York Times reviewer, for example, said “Miss Brooks is attractive and she moves her head and eyes at the proper moment, but whether she is endeavouring to express joy, woe, anger or satisfaction is often difficult to decide.”
After Pandora’s Box, Brooks made two more films in Europe: Diary of a Lost Girl, with Pabst, and Prix de Beaute ( Miss Europe), co-written by Pabst and Rene Clair and directed by Augusto Genina.
Diary of a Lost Girl, a tale of sexual hypocrisy and redemption is a striking film, too. But it is Pandora’s Box that defines Brooks. Legend has it — and Brooks helped to foster that legend — that she and Lulu are mirrors of each other, that in playing the role she was anticipating her own life. This is what Pabst told her, she said, and what she believed. “Your life is exactly like Lulu’s and you will end in the same way.”