Enig­matic silent film star Louise Brooks con­tin­ues to spark in­ter­est as a newly re­stored ver­sion of her land­mark movie is re­leased, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -



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.”

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