“When what you write about is what you see/ What do you write about when it’s dark?”
~ Charles Wright
1. “You’ll have to kill me to get rid of me.”
Criterion’s recent DVD edition of G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box(1929) must be the most luxuriant treatment ever afforded a silent film on home video. A crisp transfer of a recent restoration forever banishes the memories of dark, blurry VHS attempts, and with a second disk and an accompanying book each full of interviews, articles, and a documentary, you need only a good biography of Brooks — like the one by Barry Paris — to give yourself a rounded education on Pabst’s film and Louise herself.1
Underneath the release’s mountain of special features lies the inevitable commentary. Here it’s performed by two staunch academics, Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Ann Doane, who each, at the outset, qualify their presence by announcing just how many years they’ve “worked” on Pandora’s Box. One’s been at it for twenty years, the other twenty-five, and, where two and a half decades may seem long to spend on, say, building a model ship, it’s not excessive in getting acquainted with the likes of Pabst’s masterwork. It’s one of those movies — if you can, it’s best to grow old with it.
In serving up their discussion, Criterion has given us two very smart people that often deliver the goods, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the film. They are excellent at backgrounding the production, tying in the myth of Louise Brooks with the myth of Lulu, and at pointing out some of the myriad of nuances embedded in the flow of images. Even better, they excel at revealing the arc of the storyline and what makes its conclusion so compelling. But for a good half of the time, Tom and Mary spin off into the land of buzzwords and academic theorizing, giving us a strong dose of comparative media studies. Both these scholars are hell bent on deconstructing the film, and there’s little joy in listening to these two reduce a vibrant organic entity like Pandora’s Box to a theoretical — and largely rhetorical — object. It’s as if they want to nail down every last Expressionist shadow before one of the damn things starts moving again.
Is Pandora’s Box a work of art that ultimately defies nailing down? It’s not enough to say that Pandora’s Box doesn’t behave like an ordinary movie. Especially in its last act, Pabst reaches past the melodramatic (and sometimes comic) elements of his film to give us a profoundly tragic experience, the meaning of which is ultimately unknowable — except maybe in the solar plexus. For me, and I suspect for others, the ending of the film has an emotionally complex impact, and there’s the theme of this article. I don’t want to eliminate the film’s mystery; I want to examine a confluence of visual and thematic elements of the film — unique to Pabst’s treatment of his source material — that makes this final impact happen.
The most important contributing factor to Pabst’s conception, Louise Brooks, is one the director hadn’t full control over but was prescient enough to seek out. Without the 22-year-old actress, Pabst’s one-of-a-kind film could never have been made. Brooks became a true collaborator without knowing how or why, and as such she enabled the filmmaker to get the most out of his source, and then allowed Pabst, in a true coup du cinéma, to move past the narrow satirical focus of the Wedekind plays and, in the film’s final reel, enter the realm of poetry, or, further — into the rarefied territory of genuine tragedy, where our response to the inevitable, the irretrievable, is “beyond tears.”
If we define tragedy as a conflict between freedom and stricture, Lulu’s impulsive, perverse behavior, flying in the face of upper middle class conduct and morality, is the cause of her fall. Yet Lulu’s actions contain neither arrogant nor heroic deeds; she’s simply oblivious to consequences — innocent, as in “innocent of.” And where often a tragic hero’s fate can be viewed as a cosmic or societal comeuppance — i.e., this is what you get if you behave this way — Lulu’s death, at the hands of her last lover Jack the Ripper, has none of this. Pabst’s storytelling, his image making, gathers to this moment, which continues to stir thoughts and emotions long after we’ve watched the film.
If Pandora’s Box doesn’t behave like most movies, then neither does it behave much like its source, the two sex tragedies by German playwright Frank Wedekind. The first of these, Earth Spirit, hit the boards around 1896, the second, Pandora’s Box, a few years later. Nowadays they are known as the “Lulu plays,” artifacts of a fin-de-siecle German Expressionism that survive mostly because of Pabst’s legendary film.2
Back at the turn of the century, Wedekind’s plays were satires of the bitterest sort, with the playwright intending to rip the lid off middle-class morality, thereby revealing the impossibility to behave morally within it. To prove his point, he introduced his character Lulu, an amoral girl who’s meant to be a symbol of primitive sexuality — the powerful, bestial force that rose from primordial muck long before man constructed God and a code of morality to go with Him.
In a foreword to a 1906 edition, after several courts had placed Pandora’s Box under a ban, Wedekind tried to set things straight. For one thing, he said, it was the judges’ mistake to focus on his character Lulu. As a female vortex sucking men to their doom, Lulu plays a merely passive role in the drama. The true tragic figure of the play is Countess Geschwitz, a self-sacrificing lesbian, who, because of her “curse of abnormality,” lives outside the realm of bourgeois morality and therefore, because she genuinely loves Lulu, dies in a state of ennobled spirituality.
Wedekind’s Lulu may be passive, but she sure talks a lot, as do the other characters, which all go around carrying the playwright’s messages like placards. Each play begins with a metaphorical framing device, a prologue. In Earth Spirit, it’s a long monologue (in rhyming verse) for a lion tamer opening his circus act. His point: humankind is bestial, and everyone wants meat. Enter Lulu, who is told to just be herself; the men, with their insatiable lust, will take care of the rest. Four acts follow, in which Wedekind force-feeds us this dour, rather righteous, sermon, the dramaturgy of which works against the sympathetic expression of a basic truth he intends, I think, to be liberating.
Pandora’s Box, Wedekind’s sequel, is a chore, too. We recognize most of Pabst’s characters, and the ending, with Jack the Ripper, is the same, yet very different. Lulu, as she murders or degrades all the men in her path, is paradoxically as innocent as the flowers, yet, as she’s framed by Wedekind’s humorless dialog, she seems tough as nails and pretty damn knowing, a whore with a heart of pig-iron. The Ripper kills quick and vicious. Only the Countess begs for our sympathies. She’s the last to die, and the message is clear: bourgeois morality kills. Throw primitive impulses into the mix — that is, have Lulu stride confidently into a room — and the whole tawdry construct collapses.
Then, nearly thirty years later, we come to Pabst’s miraculous transformation. When Pabst placed a qualifying subtitle under his title — A Variation on a Theme by Frank Wedekind — he wasn’t kidding. Pabst didn’t so much adapt Wedekind’s material as re-imagine it.
Where Wedekind began his Lulu plays with metaphorical set-ups, Pabst’s film begins in the middle of a scene. There is no set-up — no bustling street shot to tell us we’re in modern Berlin. In a luxury apartment, Lulu flirts with an old man who we don’t yet know is the gasman. The lighting is flat, the acting naturalistic. Lulu is no metaphor or force of nature, but simply a pretty girl who revels in her effect on men. The flirting is harmless, although the old duff seems to take it harder than he should when Lulu’s attention must go to Schigolch (Carl Goetz), another old man, who arrives smelling badly of cheap hooch — and of Lulu’s past.
As visualized by Pabst, Schigolch is a grotesque, Dickensian figure, a Fagin-like pimp from whose coop Lulu has flown straight into the enviable position of kept woman. But Lulu’s thrilled to see her former “daddy.” When she leaps onto his lap, the director showcases the classic pimp/whore, father/daughter relationship, and the idea that Lulu is just another girl evaporates. But because the actress is so young, it’s easy to envision Lulu as a street kid falling into the clutches of a pimp like Schigolch, who would’ve given her a modicum of structure, security, even tenderness.3
Once you realize that Lulu has spent her adolescent years as a prostitute, much of her behavior, especially her erotic positioning of men, becomes understandable. As writers and commentators point out, many of Lulu’s gestures are childish, but such regressive mannerisms come from Lulu’s deep-seated knowledge that this is what most men seek in a whore: childlike wantonness that’s easy to dominate.
The underworld of vice has been her home, and Lulu will instinctively gravitate to the familiar. No wonder she feels comfortable and chummy with both Schigolch and the rather undefined character, the pimp/acrobat Rodrigo, who Schigolch introduces to Lulu as a sort of impresario wishing to star her in a trapeze act. Having stepped over the threshold into the good life, Lulu sees no reason not to leave the door open for vagabonds. As the film progresses, these three stick together like glue, creating their own unholy society.
Lulu is brazen enough to introduce Schigolch to her current keeper, Dr. Schön (Fritz Körtner), as one of her first “patrons.” Schön knows Lulu is the bringer of chaos — he tells his son, Alwa (Franz Lederer), as much — and Schön plans to avoid disaster through a marriage to a respectable middle-class girl. But it’s too late; Lulu’s got him. At some point, she tells Schön: “You’re going to have to kill me to get rid of me.”
2. “… little breasts like pears ….”4
None of Lulu’s actions in the film — until her kindness toward Jack the Ripper in the final reel — demand sympathy. She is not that ancient melodramatic standby, the whore with the heart of gold. She is cunning and manipulating throughout. To get herself out of a jam in the penultimate sequence, she unhesitatingly takes advantage of the affections of her best friend.
In centering the ultimate tragedy on Lulu, how did Pabst manage to obtain sympathy for his anti-heroine? Blessed by instinct and epic good luck, Pabst found and secured Louise Brooks, and the task was largely completed for him. Film stars of that era, American or European, could be classed as either trained and from the stage, or untrained and from nowhere in particular. Brooks came from Kansas and had no experience on the boards, save from her time with the Ted Shawn dance company and a stint as a Ziegfeld showgirl.
Twenty-two when she landed in Berlin, and resembling no European actress of her time, the American Brooks entered the German film’s production as an outsider, which is exactly how Lulu enters bourgeois society, as a creature who knows nothing of class, its rules, or its sense of order. As Louise points out in her interview with Tynan, Pabst “[knew] even before he met me that I possessed the tramp essence of Lulu.”5
But Louise herself was no Lulu. As evidenced by the wealth of Brooksiana included in Criterion’s set, Louise was far too self-aware and reflective a person to wreak havoc in so blithe a fashion as Lulu. There’s no doubt that the young Louise was a party-girl extraordinaire, taking on men and booze and all-night hours with delight — and, after her career had deep-sixed, the resemblance of Brooks’ later life to Lulu’s shorter one, is chilling. For at least two decades, she survived only by being kept by a number of men. “There was always some fool who was in love with me” is how Louise herself put it.
But on screen she couldn’t hide the native intelligence that allowed her, late in life, to become a brilliant writer about film, the rot and decay of the old Hollywood … and herself. To have this intelligence come beaming from her eyes, as Lulu allows chaos to erupt around her, is to give Brooks’ characterization a bristling contrariety that energizes the entire film. But smarts is just one of several complicating, often contradicting, factors that Brooks brought with her.
Her physical appearance was another, but let’s start with the hair. Brooks’ black helmet haircut wasn’t a hip fashion statement but merely how she’d always worn it, a relic of childhood. Along with her small breasts and slender build, the haircut gives Louise a whiff of androgyny, another factor in her appeal as a prostitute (again, think “child”), but it also positions Lulu as an exotic object, like a sleek Art Deco statuette, flitting about among Germanic “types.” I like what the disc’s commentators have to say about what Brooks owned in terms of sheer visual impact. Louise’s face, framed by dark hair, cut so precisely as to resemble a graphic symbol meant for nonverbal signage, was stunningly enhanced by black and white photography. Pabst recognized this iconic aspect before anyone else and used it — most pointedly in the gambling ship episode when he saps the Brooks image of power by putting Louise’s hair up in curls.
But Louise wasn’t just any icon, and not just any girl: she was a girl from the Plains, where screen doors slammed and echoed in the summer twilight and lovers met in the parlor. When she smiled at the camera, it could be with unadorned, Midwestern sweetness — here was the innocence Wedekind spoke of and Pabst actually got. Look at Louise’s performance as the good girl next door in the comedy The Show Off (1926); her projection of wholesomeness hasn’t an ounce of arch condescension. Our Kansas teenager is still there in Lulu but melded to a new quality, the “childish simpleness of vice” — as Louise described it in one of her articles.6
Adding to this child-woman/whore quality, Louise brought an element of joy, even of ecstasy, to the role. This is not acting of any sort; it’s innate sexual energy — Marilyn Monroe had it of course and further back in time, so did the early silent actress, Olive Thomas. Energy like this is uncontrollably life-affirming, working against the death-wish concept of the femme fatale, or the vamp, i.e., the vampire. Louise’s mere presence clears the air of Wedekind’s sexually phobic morbidity. Mixing her self-aware sexuality in with the out-of-date Wedekind content gives the rancid satire a fresh modern context and at the same time allows sympathy for Lulu. Especially for a current audience, Louise projects a healthy sexuality that puts a contrary spin on Lulu’s man-eating manipulations.
It was Pabst’s genius to have Louise act with her whole body, thereby setting free these innate qualities. In her filmed interview with Richard Leacock, Lulu in Berlin (1984 and included in Criterion’s package), Louise describes her movements in the film as simple choreography, and this easily makes sense watching her move across a room, sit on a sofa, or leap on a man’s lap. Even in close-up or medium shots, though, you remember her statement that she learned acting from Martha Graham and dancing from Charlie Chaplin.
On another of Criterion’s special features, the documentary Looking for Lulu (1998), the composer David Diamond speaks of how her acting took place between the middle of her forehead and a point somewhere near her breastbone. Diamond’s point seems vague, but he’s on to something. The camera catches, he continues, something happening between her shoulders and her neck. Intuitively, Diamond is reaching right to the heart of what makes Louise great on screen: her graceful physicality — graceful and at the same time strong and disciplined. With her long neck and spine as a flexible armature, the upright but extremely fluid carriage of her upper body gives Louise enormous poise and control, supporting and further projecting the expressiveness of her face. There’s no doubt she’s learned this balanced control from dance, and most likely, as she said, from Graham.
Of course, for all her bourgeois admirers, Lulu is a sexual object, and Pabst drives this home in the segment set in the backstage of Alwa’s musical review. Teasingly he pushes images of Louise in varying states of partial nudity. For the duration of the segment, Louise is clothed in a showgirl outfit that offers extensive peek-a-boo shots of Louise’s legs, her back, and her magnificent poitrine, the latter affording us, as Dan Callahan, in his superb piece on Brooks in Bright Lights, says, “a mouthwatering view of her small, firm breasts.” Actually, despite the flimsy construction of Brooks’ top, we never really see much of these breasts, but their role in this scene is undeniable. Pabst wants us to ogle them.
When, in the same segment, Schön’s fiancée catches sight of a partially nude Lulu being helped into her costume, we share with her the shock of naked skin, the skin — the fiancée realizes — that her future husband is so very familiar with. For the rest of us, Louise’s beautiful back becomes a glimpse of that wondrous reality, her rounded yet muscular dancer’s body. Minutes later, alone with Lulu, Dr. Schön is helplessly seduced by Lulu’s girlish tantrum (which features Louise flexing the muscles of her bare back and legs), leading to the film’s erotic pivot, the shot of Lulu rising triumphantly over the prone body of Schön — as fiancée and son look on.
Louise’s face, gazing straight at the fiancée, is like that of a lioness, her mouth still bloody from the carrion beneath her, announcing to the hyena, “You can have what’s left when I’m through.” The bestial rawness of this gaze might’ve pleased Wedekind and his lion tamer; it works in well with their view of the human sexual drive, but here it announces the fate of Pabst’s Lulu without wasting a single word.
David Diamond shows deep insight into Brooks’ 40+-year descent from major stardom when he says, “Her strength annihilated her.” As she wields her body to overwhelm Schön’s grasp on propriety, you could say the same of Brooks’ Lulu. Having turned the tables on Schön, Lulu has disrupted the delicate order of bourgeois sense and structure with the unseemly spectacle of a whore dominating her master. Schön recognizes this and makes the fatal error of attempting to repair the damage through sanctified marriage, which only worsens the tragic societal dislocation. Only disaster may follow.
3. Sexual Hate
Louise, who idolized her mentor and slept with him once, accused Pabst of being aroused more by sexual hate than by sexual love. Thereby, she says, Dr. Schön, as played by Fritz Körtner, becomes the director’s alter ego in Pandora’s Box. Louise could see that Körtner despised her and that Pabst exploited the bad vibes while shooting their scenes. What you see is what you get. When Schön gazes at Lulu, it’s clear he loathes her. “In the role of Dr. Schön, Körtner had feelings for me,” says Brooks, “that combined sexual passion with an equally passionate desire to destroy me.”7
Like Brooks, Körtner gives an astonishing physical performance. Louise mentions his powerful back and shoulders, of which Pabst took advantage when shooting encounters between Schön and Lulu. Gloomy and inward during much of his performance, Körtner — though not much taller than Louise — can loom large when aggravated by Lulu. It was all in the director’s framing, which would transform the actor’s beefy torso into an unyielding mass of brute force. Even when calm, though, Schön is every bit the capitalist thug in his immaculate suits, throwing off fumes of male entitlement like pheromones. He’s driven to dominate everything he touches, but sexual desire undoes Schön. Desire, as it seeks to dominate, dominates the dominator.
Dr. Schön goes down ignominiously on his wedding day. For a time, the lively reception at the newlyweds’ apartment appears to proceed swimmingly — until Schigolch and Rodrigo crash the party and the Countess Geschwitz begins a torrid tango with Lulu. Here’s where Schön’s monocle fogs up and events turn sour and murderous.
As Schön busts up the unseemly Sapphic display in the living room, Schigolch, drunker than usual and accompanied by Rodrigo, demands to spread roses on the connubial bed. When Lulu goes to check on the two, the three reunited demimondaines pop open the champagne and throw their own party in the bedroom. Elsewhere, much of the film’s lighting design has been on the naturalistic side — anyone expecting an Expressionist tour de force will be disappointed with most of Pabst’s comparatively banal interiors. This holds true with the lighting of the party as the guests eat, drink, and dance in the apartment’s public spaces. But, as a celebration of vice begins inside the bridal chamber, the director goes full tilt with the chiaroscuro and the throwing of massive shadow.
Schön enters to find his bride perched on the lap of Schigolch. When Schön orders her deadbeat friends to clear out, Rodrigo makes the mistake of threatening him, whereupon Schön produces the revolver and the two run out in terror, discombobulating the guests and effectively ending the reception.
Meanwhile, dreamy, gentle Alwa enters and declares his love for his stepmother, but is it really Oedipal sex that he wants from her? Within a gorgeously soft-focus shot of the seated Brooks in her shimmering white gown, Alwa goes to bury his head in her lap. It appears he’s after nurture, and, though Louise is never more beautiful than in this shot, Lulu’s lap is a disastrous place to go looking for mommy. Here Alwa secures his own rueful destiny with Lulu. Schön once again enters, this time to find Lulu tenderly stroking Alwa’s hair, and, while controlling himself until his son leaves the room, approaches his bride with blood in his eye.
Lulu, unfazed by her new husband’s anger and rapid recourse to violence, has begun to undress languorously before a full-length mirror, in which she’s joined by Schön looming next to her. It’s a provocative sight. Men themselves are like mirrors for Lulu, reflecting her power over them, but among the remains of her last day she will meet the one man, Jack the Ripper, who is no such mirror.
With no warning, Schön wrenches Lulu away from the mirror and backs her up against a wall to convince her that she must cease to exist. Modeled by extreme light and dark, Körtner is a golem-like monster lunging at Lulu with terrific force.
Pabst meaningfully blurs the circumstance of Schön’s death. Wedekind, too, has Schön place the revolver in Lulu’s hands and ask her to kill herself, but his Lulu forcefully detaches herself from Schön and, from a short distance, cold-bloodedly fires five shots into him. Brooks and Körtner instead engage in an intimate struggle, with Lulu frantically rejecting the revolver (or penis, as some suggest) that Schön is adamant she take. As soon as the camera’s positioned behind Körtner’s back, it won’t show us the shooter until Schön lurches away. The circumstance of the gun firing is thus ambiguous, but Lulu’s puzzled demeanor strongly suggests self-defense, or merely accident. The scene is also a visual wonder, in a sequence full of them.
When the gun goes off — necessarily in silence — smoke wafts gently upwards from Schön’s torso. As we still see only his back and Lulu’s quizzical expression, our split-second reaction may be that Schön’s fury, like that of some mythical being, has caused him to catch on fire.
It’s an authentic surreal image, right up there with Cocteau’s smoldering Beast or early Buñuel images. In a sound film the effect would be spoiled by the necessitated crack of the gunshot, which would deliver at once the source of the rising smoke and cause many to jump in their seats. But like Lulu’s demise, Schön’s death is purely visual, drawing us into the strangeness of the smoke, followed by the near operatic nightmare of the death struggle. At one point as Körtner staggers about, the top of Pabst’s framing ends at his shoulders, and Schön becomes a headless giant, or damaged robot, another vision of phantasmic horror. Gurgling a single trickle of dark blood from the corner of his mouth, Schön dies in Alwa’s arms, and never has chocolate syrup been used so economically and to such unnerving effect.8
4. The Way Down
After the trial, from which Lulu has eluded custody, Alwa returns home to find her arisen from a nice hot bath. He shudders at the sight of the oblivious girl, naked under her bathrobe, spinning giddily about in the very room where his father died so luridly by her hand. Yet Lulu’s behavior is not really so reckless and impulsive. Her survival instinct, which will fail her in the last act, has already kicked in: the very minute upon entering the apartment after her escape, she notices Alwa’s passport and instantly recognizes it as her exit visa from inevitable imprisonment.
Alwa’s seduction is accomplished in a snap, and the two hit the road, or rather the rails. The following two sequences, which build to the finale in the London slums, depict Lulu’s return to the underworld, where Lulu largely ceases to be an object of desire and becomes an object to barter or sell. The disc’s commentators skillfully explain her relationships to the film’s two societies, the bourgeoisie and the demimonde. The former, if I may paraphrase, wants to fuck her; the latter wants to sell her.
The train trip lasts only long enough for Lulu and Alwa to fall into the clutches of a con-man/pimp/white-slaver, the Marquis Casti-Piani, who recognizes Lulu as the media darling who’s publicly fled from an indictment for manslaughter. With the bounty for aiding capture set at 250 marks, Casti-Piani immediately reduces Lulu to a bargaining chip. Threatened with disclosure, Alwa, after swiftly emptying his pockets of cash for the Marquis, agrees that he and Lulu will join him at his seaside villa.
A brisk location change brings us to a murky harbor at night where the villa turns out to be an anchored two-masted ship that doubles as gambling emporium and whorehouse. By now, all of us, audience and fictional characters alike, doubt that Casti-Piani is really a marquis.
Lulu’s buddies, Schigolch and Rodrigo, have joined her, of course, and late one evening, the Countess Geschwitz, the group’s fourth musketeer, comes shipside to seek out Lulu. Geschwitz, played by Alice Roberts, is the only Wedekind character not substantially altered by Pabst and his screenwriter. Either Roberts effectively underplays the role, or Louise’s memories are correct and Pabst cleverly utilized the actress’ strong aversion to playing a lesbian, allowing Roberts’ visible discomfiture on the screen to read as Geschwitz’s repressed but passionate attachment to Lulu. Place Roberts alone in a crowd of party guests and she looks lost and utterly alone.
The Countess is the only person in the film who unequivocally loves Lulu, and Pabst has given her a courageous outburst in the trial sequence when, during the break before sentencing and in front of a mob of onlookers, she screams at the prosecutor: “Where would your wife be if she had been brought up in cheap cafés!?” If we may read “café” as “brothel,” this is the only moment in the film that Pabst, whose politics favored the far left, risks billboarding Lulu’s dilemma as a rise and fall from and to prostitution — with the blame going to society at large. The film seems to slant in that direction — and I’m sure Pabst would personally cast such blame — but elsewhere the filmmaker embeds his socialist conscience within the visual fabric.
But the outcry does highlight Geschwitz’s deep-seated understanding of Lulu’s outlaw status; as a lesbian, the Countess is one herself. Below decks of the ship, she quickly finds that life has been a downward spiral for Lulu and Alwa, who is no pro at making a living playing cards. At the gaming table, we see that Pabst, with deliberate purpose, has had Louise’s hair done up in curls. Without her black helmet, Lulu looks vulnerable, small and bereft of power.
Casti-Piani is poised to sell her to an Egyptian brothel owner, while Rodrigo wants her to finance his new theatrical venture. Both men hang the promise of reward money over her head, and, as time runs out, Lulu ruthlessly uses Geschwitz’s devotion to extricate herself from Rodrigo’s bullying. When all hell breaks loose as Alwa is caught cheating at cards, Schigolch, Lulu, and Alwa use the confusion to escape. The conniption brings the police, who find Geschwitz screaming over the corpse of Rodrigo, efficiently murdered by Schigolch. It’s the last we see of the Countess.
5. Christmas Eve
Criterion, in a generous acknowledgment of the importance of music to silent film, offers the viewer a choice of four different scores to accompany Pandora’s Box. All of them are thoughtfully composed, improvised, or arranged, and they’re nicely recorded, but it’s Gillian Anderson’s effort I like the most.9 Hers is an orchestral score made up of stitched-together fragments of light classical (and not so light classical) pieces and a few pop tunes of the era.
Anderson is right on target for the Salvation Army scene that opens the final London segment of the film. As a brass band plays “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on the soundtrack, Lulu’s death angel, Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diesel), materializes out of a night fog to pause at a window and peer in at a well-fed middle-class family celebrating around a Christmas tree. When Jack continues on his way, he encounters a group of homeless clustered around a pretty Salvation Army maiden handing out food and presents. The brass band turns out be source music, a Salvation Army ensemble accompanying the sad grouping. Unaccountably, Jack joins them. It’s Christmas Eve.
Wedekind, too, had Lulu die on Christmas Eve, and the significance of this was not lost on Pabst, who uses yuletide images to drive his tragedy deeper into our hearts. Pabst rams the spirit of Christmas — the “hopes and fears of all the years” — up against desperate urban poverty and, with the entrance of Jack, the threat of random psychotic violence. As Jack’s expressive eyes lock with those of the young Army woman, the band strikes up “Adeste Fideles,” and Jack empties his pockets for the charity’s brass pot. In return — “we take only to give to others” — the woman thrusts a sprig of mistletoe and a candle into the Ripper’s hands.
We’re feeling heartsick already. Peering up with moist yearning, the little Army maid misreads the intensity of Jack’s gaze as down and out and lonely. Maybe she’s a little hot for him, too. As Louise was not shy to point out, Diesel had more sexual charisma than any other male in the picture. But the Ripper leaves the maiden be — he’s in a funny mood tonight.
Away from the meandering Ripper, we find Lulu, Alwa, and Schigolch still together, living in a wretched garret. Tellingly, Lulu and Schigolch seem resigned to living on the bottom — after all, they’re both simply back where they started. While Lulu bustles about seeing what she can muster in terms of food, Schigolch sits contented with a bottle. But that delicate bourgeois dreamer, Alwa, is bundled up on the bed, deep in depression. Pabst heightens the impression of the room’s bleak poverty with a well-considered nuance: Alwa covers himself for warmth under a pile of newspapers; Wedekind dictates a rug.
Alwa is too far -gone to notice that Lulu has begun to comb her now greasy hair (back in its Dutch bob) and to apply makeup. She knows what she must do, and so does Schigolch, who, ever Fagin-like, teases her about it: “Why all the paint? We like you just the way you are.”10 Alwa remains clueless but follows them out the door, finally catching on when a man accosts Lulu on the curb. When Alwa pulls Lulu away from the john, Schigolch regrets it. “Too bad,” he says, “I’d have liked to taste Christmas pudding once more before I die.” At this, the morose Alwa retreats with Schigolch, and Lulu walks further into the fog to ply her trade.
Prostitutes were the target for the historical Ripper, but Jack doesn’t approach Lulu; instead, looking more like a child than ever, she solicits him and brings him home, and at this point many in a Weimar audience might anticipate the film ending on a lurid, titillating note with a Lustmord (sex crime). In ’20s Berlin, Lustmord was a media-fed phenomenon catering to a public hungry for vicarious erotic thrills.11 There were myriad newspaper accounts of vicious murders featuring genital mutilations, along with books, plays, paintings, and what have you. The image of Jack the Ripper, which was fresh when Wedekind wrote the plays in the 1890s,12 had entered popular culture by the Weimar era. There were comic “Jack the Ripper” routines in Berlin cabarets, featuring nude victims.13
Some Berlin filmgoers might’ve even found themselves getting a bit aroused as Brooks led Diesel up the dark Expressionist staircase. Imagine their surprise when Louise literally disarms the Ripper with her prairie smile. As she offers herself for free, Jack drops his knife, and by impulsively breaking a cardinal rule of prostitution, Lulu has committed her last transgression.
Inside the desolate garret, we might as well be back in a Kansas parlor, as Lulu and Jack the Ripper become girl and boy on a sweetly shy first date. Diesel is superb here, maintaining an edgy air of psychosis that at times miraculously translates into awestruck wonder at Louise’s vision of girlish beauty. The attraction is mutual. The visible chemistry between the two actors is another instance of Pabst’s incredible luck — off-set, during filming, Diesel and Brooks couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Their characters Jack and Lulu — both tramps from outside the gates of bourgeois Eden — are made for each other. Chthonic sweethearts.
A tender celebration of Christmas precedes the inevitable. When Jack extends his hand to her, petite Louise goes to perch on Jack’s lap. He looks at her with the gaze of an administrating angel, or with the eyes of an ordinary Joe thinking to himself, “Ain’t I lucky?” Playfully Lulu retrieves candle and mistletoe from Jack’s coat and slips off his lap to light the candle. Crouching down level to the tabletop, she pauses to silently gaze into the flame.
Now the mood is hushed, nearly reverential, as if Lulu harbors a prayer on this night of nights. Pabst, who has been stingy throughout with pictorial effects, allows a final soft-focus close-up of Louise’s face meditating on the candle’s soft light. Within it she is no longer a whore or man-eater. This crushingly beautiful shot of Brooks represents the zenith toward which, in an adverse ratio to her downward spiral to degradation, our affections for the lost girl have risen.
Lulu turns from the candle to give Jack a questioning, pleading look, and the killer once again offers his lap. Jack brings the mistletoe above her head, and, as soon as the two embrace under it, Jack sees the knife, kisses Lulu, and the murder happens quickly. Here’s the anticipated Lustmord but with crucial differences that distance the act from its prurient norm. Like Schön’s death, its violence is shielded from us, as the camera only takes in the Ripper’s back, with Lulu’s arm still gripping it in their embrace — when Jack penetrates her with the knife, there is no struggle, no convulsing. Her hand falls from its grip like that of a child going to sleep, and we know she’s gone.14
It’s more like euthanasia than violent murder, this slipping away from existence, and there’s a chilly sense of nothingness, of real death, in this image of Lulu’s falling hand. But the full tragic truth of that image, its full import, finds completion, or rather, a dark sort of radiance, in the film’s next and last scene.
Down on the street, a numb, dejected Alwa slouches at the doorway. He sees Jack leave, and the reality of what he thinks just happened hits home. The man in the wide-brimmed hat has just had paid for sex with Lulu. Jack glances at Alwa, but the killer’s face is devoid of expression; he doesn’t mind being seen. The love scene with Lulu was a hallucination, his true nature has reasserted itself, and he’s back in the game, a dutiful cog in the universe.
After he watches Jack disappear into the fog, Alwa begins to sob uncontrollably, and they’re hot tears, not for Lulu but for himself. It’s Franz Lederer’s finest moment in the film; even without sound you can hear his wailing in the face of inadequacy and hurt manhood. He fucked her, is all he can think — it’s really over…
A disjoint like this — the self-involved youth crying tears of self-pity while unaware of the lonely death upstairs — is fundamental dramatic irony, a powerful device patented by the Greeks. Its idea, or set-up, is simple: a character acts or speaks without knowledge of an event or situation that the audience knows full well. The resultant irony can enlarge, or even ennoble, an already tragic event.
Often it sharpens the perspective on futility and death. The actions of the unknowing character create a gulf between the tragic event and a redeeming conclusion to it. Lulu won’t live on in the hearts of her loved ones; there will be no graveside tears. If Alwa lives to remember her, it will be as the whore who killed his father. The technique of dramatic irony is rare in the movies, but Pabst wields it with the power of Shakespeare.15
The sight of Alwa’s cluelessness is cleansed of cheap irony by the quiet, non-morbid nature of Lulu’s death. Imagine how different the effect if Pabst had intercut shots of Alwa leaning morosely in the doorway with quick edits of Lulu struggling and screaming as the Ripper bleeds the life out of her. Accordingly, with Lulu given up silently to oblivion, we don’t hate Alwa for his egoism; we empathize with his youth, his inexperience, and his pain — he’s doing what he must do, just as the Ripper did.
But what about Lulu? Pandora’s Box is a tragedy, and Lulu, abandoned by her companions, must die utterly alone. With no violence and no mourners, it’s a death so calm and devoid of theatrics that our feelings are confounded at first, but then — what is death? — suffused with a sense of boundless expanding emptiness, like what you see looking up into a winter’s clear, depthless night sky.
In negating hope, even bleakness can be sentimental and comforting, but Lulu’s lonely death provides something much more open-ended and an unusually potent moral object to take from a film: a truth in the form of an unanswerable question.
The film’s final dissonance rounds the corner in the form of the Salvation Army in procession, with the poor and homeless trailing them; behind it all comes a donkey-pulled cart with a lighted Christmas tree swaying within it. The female leader — could it be the Ripper’s sweet benefactor? — dips, then raises the Army flag in a militant show of the power of charity and giving. The band plays “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” which contains the words, “God and sinners reconciled,” but Lulu the sinner is a corpse surrounded by darkness. God and reconciliation occur in brightly lit churches and beside warm beds.
A couple of doors down, in a grungy tavern, Schigolch receives his Christmas pudding — for free — and Alwa has no choice but to fall in behind the wobbly cart and its Christmas tree, leaving behind the dead girl and the truth occasioned by her still hand.
Wedekind, Frank. The Lulu Plays & Other Sex Tragedies, translated from the German by Stephen Spender. London: Calder and Boyars, 1973.
Gordon, Mel. Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2006.
Reflections on Pandora’s Box. New York: The Criterion Collection, 2006.
Louise Brooks: Portrait of an Anti-Star. New York: New York Zoetrope, 1986.
- For an immersion in the photographed image of Louise Brooks, go to Lulu Forever by Peter Cowie (Rizzoli, 2006). [↩]
- One of Wedekind’s earlier plays, Spring Awakening, has recently been fashioned into a musical, which appeared on Broadway last December and became a hit. [↩]
- The foremost example of such a relationship in the movies is the father/lover role Harvey Keitel’s pimp plays to Jodie Foster’s teenaged hooker in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. [↩]
- Late in life, Charles Chaplin, who had a monthlong affair with Brooks, thus described Louise’s breasts. [↩]
- Reflections on Pandora’s Box, p. 57. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 28. [↩]
- Ibid., p.80. [↩]
- Brooks, in her brilliant Sight and Sound article, writes of Körtner delivering a fully rehearsed theatrical death scene while unaware of how the mechanics of each shot would transform the “prepared emotions” into a series of powerful images, which Louise calls “unhinged fragments of reality.” — Reflections on Pandora’s Box, p. 84. [↩]
- One of them, an orchestral score with modernist leanings, is by Peer Raben, a prolific film composer best known for his underscores for the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Raben died in January 2007. [↩]
- Who would ever think Pabst’s masterpiece might dislodge memories of a Billy Joel song? [↩]
- Gordon, p. 233-238. [↩]
- The murders occurred in 1889. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 59. [↩]
- Oddly, Louise herself thought it would’ve been better to have ended this scene with the knife buried in Lulu’s vagina — an image that truly honors the Lustmord tradition. [↩]
- The most familiar instance of classic dramatic irony is the final scene of Romeo and Juliet,where Romeo, thinking Juliet dead, kills himself. Juliet awakes; kills self. In film, one example is the denouement of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, in which the severely wounded McCabe, having cleansed the town of murderous thugs, freezes to death in a snowdrift while the townspeople, unaware of his struggle, unite to save a burning church that no one has ever used. [↩]