If she is seen simply as a free spirit, a woman who lives for sexual pleasure, and as exemplary on that account, a model liberated woman (as Louise Brooks herself often is), she is still being judged by her sexual behavior. Such a view inevitably validates the idea that women’s sexual behavior is always, and uniquely, a moral matter, which returns us to the idea of women as property. By celebrating the supposed natural whoredom of women through the character of Lulu, Wedekind falls into this trap himself, whereas Pabst avoids it. His Lulu is also an archetype – but of woman perceived as shallow, vain, amoral, and destructive, a whore without a heart. A perception evoked by men’s atavistic and tragicomic desire to be master.
* * *
Lulu, the protagonist of G.W. Pabst’s classic silent film Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1929), is a dazzlingly attractive young woman, a foundling with the charm and mentality of a child. The men in her story fall into two groups: those who are drawn to her, who are compelled to struggle against the attraction because it is, in a different way for each, threatening; and those who are not subject to her charms but try to profit from them. All are unwitting accomplices in bringing on the evils foretold in the title.
Though based on Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, Earth Spirit (Erdgeist, 1895) and Pandora’s Box (1902), the film, subtitled “Variations on the Theme of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu,” treats Wedekind’s situations and characters very freely. (The two plays actually derive from a single work of 1892-1894 called Pandora’s Box: A Monster Tragedy, which remained unpublished until 1988.) One reason for Pabst’s liberties is to make the issues the plays raise clear to the audience for a silent movie. The issues would need clarifying in any case because Wedekind muddies them, whether because of ambivalence about his central character (heart or no heart? in love with Dr. Schön or incapable of love?) or because he is led astray by a desire to shock. Above all, the playwright defies us to sympathize with characters whose fictiveness he never lets us forget for long, whereas the movie, meant for a broader audience, opts for a sympathetic view of Lulu.
The difference in style alone, which is unrelated to the difference in medium, is striking. The plays are as far from realism as Goethe’s Faust, Part II or the night-town episode of Joyce’s Ulysses, whereas the movie hews to straightforward narrative. Nevertheless, knowing the plays can enlarge our understanding and appreciation of the film. (Pabst could count on his German audience’s familiarity with the material, which also had been filmed before.)
For example, by giving the movie Lulu no education, unlike her formidably articulate stage original, and by making her childlikeness so prominent (the screenplay refers to her frequently as childlike or a child), Pabst keeps her sordid background constantly in view. In Earth Spirit, Lulu justly accuses Dr. Schön of being unable to forget it, of refusing to let her live it down. The movie Lulu’s lack of education also makes her descent to the bottom, once deprived of her powerful protector, more believable.
In the same way, Pabst’s film, more clearly than the plays, challenges equating female virtue with sexual innocence, signifying an impossible, unearthly purity. The sexually experienced girl has lost her innocence and trustworthiness once and for all, as if every girl re-enacts the Fall when she loses her virginity. From then on she cannot escape suspicion, particularly if she is attractive. Though the movie Lulu (Louise Brooks) clearly retains her child’s perspective in other respects, she, like her stage original, lost her sexual innocence in childhood. Therefore, her innocence must be a sham, a deception, calculated, the more so because sex remains her stock in trade. But if her innocence were only a superior artfulness, would a man of the world like Dr. Schön (Fritz Körtner) be so captivated?
Failure to distinguish between Wedekind’s Lulu and Pabst’s has created confusion, and that confusion has been compounded by the existence of a third Lulu – Louise Brooks herself, regarded as Lulu’s real-life incarnation. Many critics have taken their cue from Brooks’s remark to Kenneth Tynan that Pabst saw in her the “tramp essence of Lulu,” but the point the movie makes about Lulu, very powerfully at the end, is that she remains an innocent.1 What Brooks’s performance actually conveys so well is the character’s disconcerting childlikeness, which was also, to an extent (and visible to Pabst), Brooks’s own. The idea of Lulu as a tramp is precisely what Dr. Schön cannot free himself of despite his feeling for her, thus dooming them both. Perhaps Pabst was led to choose an American for the role to avoid the worldliness a European actress such as Marlene Dietrich, his second choice, might unavoidably have suggested. European actresses routinely sent him nude photos of themselves to entice him to cast them, according to Brooks, to whom Pabst showed his photo collection.2
Film historians and critics here and in Europe rescued Pabst’s film from obscurity in the 1950s and established it as a classic based on its subject matter and Louise Brooks’s performance. Brooks herself loyally credited her performance entirely to Pabst’s direction.3
Dr. Schön is a middle-aged, widowed, possibly Jewish newspaper editor-in-chief about to marry into a noble and politically prominent family. His fiancée (Daisy D’Ora) – like Lulu, a generation younger than him – is the interior minister’s daughter. The minister is prepared to accept his daughter’s choice, though he questions it in light of Schön’s relationship with Lulu.
Schön has been keeping Lulu in a nice modern apartment (in Earth Spirit, she has lived with the Schöns since the age of 12), but his connection to her threatens his social position and coming marriage and must end. The first act (the movie is divided into acts, like a play) establishes that he adores her and is loath to give her up, the weight of the world is on his shoulders at the prospect, and that Lulu, for her part, invites her middle-aged lover’s attentions, she does not suffer them. (In the play it is she who cannot keep away from him.) He is the only man in the movie toward whom she acts in an unambiguously sexual way. The very civilized and controlled Dr. Schön gets to play elemental male to Lulu’s elemental female.
To Schön, Lulu is, at times, a wonder, God’s gift to him. (In Earth Spirit, the painter who becomes her second husband calls her “Eve,” to her annoyance.) At these moments, the chasm between them works in her favor. As God’s gift she reinforces his sense of himself as someone who belongs by right at the very top of the social/political hierarchy. She may be the only person before whom he abases himself. At other times, Lulu is his nemesis, a constant threat to bring him down, his guilty social conscience.
That the film’s director saw Schön’s predicament in such terms is suggested by a comment of Brooks’s in “Pabst and Lulu”4: “Pabst’s feelings for me … were not unlike those of Schön for Lulu. I think that in the two films Pabst made with me – Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl – he was conducting an investigation into his relations with women, with the object of conquering any passion that interfered with his passion for his work.”
When Lulu is stretched out on a couch to receive Schön’s attentions, and he is telling her sadly that their relationship must end, he caresses her head and strokes her cheek as a kind of blessing. Among the apartment’s furnishings (which also include a menorah) is a large painting of Lulu costumed as Pierrot that was presumably commissioned by him. (In Earth Spirit, the portrait is commissioned by Lulu’s wealthy first husband, Dr. Goll, whom she marries at Schön’s behest, going along with the latter’s conscious intention of relieving himself of her.) It is Schön who seizes on the news that Lulu is going into a trapeze act to propose that his son Alwa (Franz Lederer) put her instead into the revue Alwa is producing and promises that his newspaper will help make her a success. The brainstorm of a socially uncompromising way to keep Lulu in his life instantly lifts Schön out of his depression, but at the same time, he warns Alwa to be wary of her (or tries to warn Alwa off). That kind of woman spells trouble.
The first act also establishes the character of Lulu’s relationship with Schigolch (Carl Goetz), her first “patron,” as she introduces him to Schön when she can no longer conceal his presence in the apartment. The play Pandora’s Box implies that Schigolch raped Lulu when she was a child and remembers the experience, and her screams, fondly. His sadism links him to the play’s Jack the Ripper. In Earth Spirit, Schigolch is 77 years old and may or may not be Lulu’s father but definitely lived off her earnings as a child prostitute and thief. She gives him a cool reception when he re-enters her life.
In the movie Schigolch has tracked Lulu down after a separation of some years. He remarks on how well she has done for herself and proceeds to help himself to money from her purse as a pimp or manager would. She is dismayed momentarily but quickly laughs it off. Her role is to placate the man. He asks if she still dances, and she performs happily to his harmonica accompaniment. When she can’t remember the rest of the steps, he becomes furious and threatens to strike her with the harmonica. She cowers. He catches himself quickly, putting his mask of joviality back in place because he needs to stay on the good side of his prospering ex-protégée. If Lulu is a child, the diminutive, bottle-dependent Schigolch is a sinister baby.
Schön visits backstage with his fiancée for the opening of Alwa’s revue. Lulu is delighted on seeing him, but when he returns her smile with a baleful glare, she is hurt and angry. She refuses to go back on, and Schön is recruited to make her see reason. He shakes a finger at her with would-be sternness, and she walks away from him with Rodrigo (Krafft-Raschig), pointedly taking up again the idea of doing a trapeze act with him. When Schön follows, she tells him she won’t dance in front of that woman – his fiancée. He ushers her into the prop room to keep their argument private. He tries to bully her physically, menacing her and shaking her violently, but she is not cowed by him. She throws herself down on some cushions, burying her face in her arms, exposing her bare neck and back, crying, furiously shaking her head “No” and kicking her exposed legs, which Schön can’t help but notice and be aroused by.
As he struggles to light a cigarette to keep his composure, she pauses in her tantrum, like a child for whom rules are sacrosanct, to tell him that smoking is forbidden. The ridiculousness of the scene strikes Schön, and he starts to laugh, at which Lulu, incensed at being laughed at, sits up and starts shaking him, and bites his pinkie. Overcome by his feeling for her, he pulls her into an embrace, and thus they are discovered by Alwa and the fiancée. Lulu has a shamelessly gloating smile for her vanquished rival, who soon departs. This marks the pinnacle of her career.
Lulu returns happily to the performance, and Schön composes himself. He asks Alwa if the latter is satisfied because now he will be marrying Lulu, as Alwa had previously suggested, and it will be his death sentence. But, clearly, marrying Lulu is the outcome Schön himself subconsciously desired, society be damned. He responded to Alwa’s suggestion as if Alwa had read his mind, starting up out of his chair and upending it in the process. The script says, in Christopher Holme’s translation, “Alwa’s question confronts him with a fact that he has repressed in the depths of his unconscious.”5 His planned society marriage, we realize, was partly an effort to forestall a marriage to Lulu. That for the sake of his position Schön has to make it seem as if he were forced into marrying her does indeed bode ill. He cannot escape the outlook of society he has internalized.
Meanwhile, Alwa has come to realize he loves Lulu himself and must go away. The real world, as opposed to the world of make-believe, is too much for the son. As Schön’s feelings for Lulu are connected to his ambivalence about the society that has been the goal of his striving, so Alwa’s feelings for her are connected to a son’s rivalry with a loved but overbearing father.
The wedding reception in the movie is society’s introduction to Lulu, her coming out. Until then she has been the unseen subject of gossip. Accordingly, Schön is under strain. After amusing herself by waiting on her tipsy mates Schigolch and Rodrigo (the serving staff then gleefully follows their mistress’s lead), Lulu asks the gloomy, Hamlet-like Alwa, now her stepson, to dance. When he refuses, she approaches the Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), the lesbian who designed the costumes for Alwa’s revue, who needs no encouragement. Schön quickly breaks up their tango and carries Lulu off to greet guests with him. She then heads for the bedroom, but before opening the door, gets Schön’s attention and gestures to him to join her inside for a little frolic. He declines but discreetly mimes a kiss before turning back to his guests. He delights in her lack of inhibition, but it also feeds his distrust of her.
Unbeknownst to Lulu, Schigolch and Rodrigo are in the bedroom, the former, now stewed, strewing flowers on the marriage bed, and the latter still tanking up. Schigolch paws Lulu, who first resists, then submits and sits on his lap. He kisses her paternally on the forehead. Schön’s entrance to find out what’s keeping her begins a sequence in which Lulu goes from man to man trying to prevent violence. She breaks away from Schigolch, then stops Rodrigo from hitting Schön with a bottle after the latter has knocked an offered drink out of his hand, and finally grabs Schön around the neck to keep him from using the gun he has taken. The movie makes a point of Lulu’s lack of fear of Schön, even when, as in this and the following scene, he is brandishing a gun. To protect Schigolch, Lulu tells Schön that he is her father. Schigolch and Rodrigo flee with arms raised, Schön in pursuit.
The commotion brings the wedding reception to an abrupt end. The embarrassed guests depart, some trying to ease the gun-toting Schön’s state of mind before leaving. He points the gun at himself at one point. It was one thing to be flouted before an audience of theater people, overgrown children themselves – in Lulu’s world, so to speak – but another before one’s own colleagues and peers. In that setting, in his own world, no sense of the ridiculous comes to Schön’s aid.
Meanwhile, Alwa has entered the bedroom and tells Lulu he wants her to go away with him. When Schön re-enters, she is comforting Alwa, who has his head resting in her lap with eyes closed. If Schön did not know before, he knows now that his son is in love with Lulu, too. Grimly, he escorts Alwa out of the bedroom – “you’ll miss your train.”
The final straw comes when he turns back to find Lulu admiring herself in her wedding dress and pearl necklace in the full-length mirror. Oblivious! Yet Schön’s own admiration of her person, as we will soon see again, borders on idolatry. He is horrified by how quickly she can put all that has happened out of her mind, but for her such scenes are not unfamiliar, and she did nothing wrong, other than try to please everybody. Also, as we see on other occasions, her grasp of what is going on around her is very limited. In her mind what seems to count is that order has been restored, violence has been averted, the intruders have all been banished, and she and Dr. Schön are alone together in their bedroom. If he is still upset, she can patch things up with him in bed, and he’ll forget all about it. The next thing she knows he’s extending the handle of the pistol – the barrel is pointed at himself – and commanding her to kill herself. They struggle face-to-face, with Körtner’s back to the camera blocking our view, and the gun goes off. Mortally wounded, Schön walks slowly to the bed and sits down with a dazed look on his face, then rises and comes up to face Lulu again, not to smite or denounce but to bless, caressing her head as he did in the first act. He tries to kiss her one last time but weakness overcomes him and he crumples to the floor. Lulu can only respond with childlike horror, “Blood!” She has delivered Schön from an insoluble conflict, but he leaves her unprotected. In fact, he leaves two helpless people to their fates – hearing Lulu cry out, Alwa returns in time to take his dying father’s extended hand.
Schön follows convention in thinking of Lulu as the kind of woman one does not marry, before he has her force him into it. It would be suicide, he says, and so it proves to be. Schön ultimately lacks the courage of his desire, as D. H. Lawrence might have said. The only way out of his dilemma is death. In Lawrence’s story “The Prussian Officer,” the tightly wound title character, finding himself overpoweringly attracted to his handsome, young child-of-nature orderly, goads the latter into killing him. (The orderly winds up dead, too.) Desire can be a great equalizer if one is not careful. One can indulge it, even an “unnatural” desire like the officer’s, or like the countess’s for Lulu, with an inferior – that is one of their assigned roles, after all – provided one keeps one’s emotional distance. That way the self is not compromised. To use Lulu for sexual gratification is one thing; to become emotionally – and publicly – entangled with her, another. The movie’s invented backstage argument and inverted death scene (in Earth Spirit Lulu murders Schön in a blind rage after he repudiates her) render in literal, physical terms Schön’s inability to keep his distance from Lulu.
Talk of desire and domination reveals the implicit connection between Schön and Jack the Ripper, who accomplishes the destruction of Lulu that Schön ostensibly sought, and the connection is that both experience desire as a threat to their self-control and self-sufficiency, the foundation of their identity and privileged status as males. (The theme is the same one Lawrence deals with playfully-philosophically in his tortoise poems.)
Still another version of the Lulu story connects the two characters explicitly – a Wedekind-like move. In his opera Lulu, composer and librettist Alban Berg makes Schön and Jack the Ripper a dual role, assigns both the same musical signature, and presents Lulu’s death as a surrender to her lover/murderer. Berg began the opera in 1929, the year Pabst’s film was released, but had not finished orchestrating the third and final act at his death in 1935. Friedrich Cerha completed the work some 40 years later.
Pabst’s Lulu is not some mysterious enchantress but, like Schigolch, a recognizable product of the underside of society. The movie, like the second Lulu play, is called Pandora’s Box, not Lulu, and the title is partly ironic. Lulu is an Everywoman or Everygirl. Society is a minefield for one of her gender, background, and killer looks. It is the prosecutor at her trial – another scene not found in Wedekind – who compares her to Pandora in his summation and demands the death penalty for her on the unimpeachable testimony of Greek mythology, Lulu having indisputably brought destruction on Dr. Schön. Flattered by the prosecutor’s description of the enchanting destroyer, defendant Lulu, decked out in widow’s weeds – doubtless as directed by her lawyer – rewards him with a dazzling smile that disconcerts him momentarily, but he recovers himself and resumes his summation, leaving her bewildered and faint.
Coming from a representative of the state, the prosecutor’s case is official confirmation that Schön’s conflict over Lulu is social in origin. The prosecutor cannot see her as she is any more than Schön can escape the suspicion that a demon lurks inside her. In fact, the prosecutor invokes the mythological parallel to try to override mitigating circumstances that might sway the court in Lulu’s favor, leaving it to the Countess Geschwitz, when the court recesses to deliberate, to challenge him on those grounds, asking him what would have become of his wife (to whom he is talking) if she, as a child, had been forced to spend her nights being herded around cafes. The court convicts Lulu of manslaughter and sentences her to five years, less four-and-a-half months for time served.
Critics usually do not contest the prosecutor’s view of Lulu as a destroyer of men, perhaps because they like that idea of her, particularly since the ready alternatives – victim or whore with a heart of gold – are scorned as cliches. In Pauline Kael’s admiring words, “Lulu is the sexually insatiable female, the archetype of voracious, destructive woman. She has no moral sense and no interests beyond sensuality; when a man is exhausted, she leaves him.” Seen thus, Lulu exemplifies a tragic or fatalistic view of life instead of an unfashionable meliorist one, as she does in Wedekind (if fitfully) and Pabst.6
The idea of a woman who preys on men sexually instead of being their prey has its own appeal, too. Isn’t turnabout fair play? And don’t men have a lot to answer for? Lulu’s peaceful death cradled in the arms of an angelic-looking Jack the Ripper thus becomes her reward for a job well done, a new Christmas story, a new Pietà. But what kind of reward is a fatal stabbing, even one that is quick, clean, and almost painless? One that is also quite unlike Lulu’s end in the play Pandora’s Box, whose Jack the Ripper is a sadistic brute who, though she fights fiercely for her life, completely overmatches her. If Lulu is seen, even if admiringly, as man’s nemesis, her murder becomes willy-nilly only what was coming to her.
Moreover, if she is seen simply as a free spirit, a woman who lives for sexual pleasure, and as exemplary on that account, a model liberated woman (as Louise Brooks herself often is), she is still being judged by her sexual behavior. Such a view inevitably validates the idea that women’s sexual behavior is always, and uniquely, a moral matter, which returns us to the idea of women as property. By celebrating the supposed natural whoredom of women through the character of Lulu, Wedekind falls into this trap himself, whereas Pabst avoids it. His Lulu is also an archetype – but of woman perceived as shallow, vain, amoral, and destructive, a whore without a heart. A perception evoked by men’s atavistic and tragicomic desire to be master.
The only men Pabst’s putative Pandora actually has any power over are Schön and Alwa, father and son, because of the emotion they invest in her. The other person to whom this applies is the Countess Geschwitz, Wedekind’s declared hero. The movie reduces the countess’s role, but even in the plays she is little more than a dupe and a rather pathetic figure. As for the other men in Lulu’s story, Schigolch and the blackmailing Marquis Casti-Piani exploit her, Rodrigo attempts blackmail, and Jack the Ripper, though disarmed temporarily by her charms, does her in. She ends up just another of his anonymous victims.
After her escape from the courtroom – staged by the countess, Schigolch, and Rodrigo – Lulu returns alone to the palatial Schön apartment. When Alwa enters and sees her hat, he goes looking for her. The scene between them that follows replays both the backstage and wedding reception scenes between Lulu and Schön, except that, in relation to Alwa, Lulu is the adult.
When he discovers her in the bath, he quickly closes the door and retreats. The circumstance of finding her there cues us that the vehement objection he is about to make to her returning to the apartment is fueled by guilt over his desire for her. Lulu/Aphrodite emerges and, thinking perhaps to give Alwa a nice surprise, comes up behind him in her bathrobe, lays a hand on his shoulder and peers over it at his face. In “Pabst and Lulu,” Louise Brooks tells us that, on Pabst’s order, she was actually naked beneath the robe – the director wanted that awareness to inflect Franz Lederer’s performance.7 Alwa remains motionless, refusing to acknowledge her. Lulu pokes him playfully in the back, then gently turns him around to face her and smiles at him questioningly. He asks how she can dare to come here, and she asks, where else should she go but home. Her matter-of-fact answer leaves him speechless, and he offers her hat to her in response. She snatches it angrily, scrunches it up, and throws it at the large bas-relief of a supplicant, which is a focal point in the scene. (It momentarily arrests Lulu’s attention, an unhappy reminder, when she enters the bedroom.) At this, Alwa recoils from her, but she then finds his reaction, his histrionics, his newfound concern for appearances – so like his father’s – funny. He prepares to leave, explaining that if she can feel at home in the place where his father bled to death, then he must go.
Lulu tries to hold him back, then becomes serious herself and takes a gamble on his love for her. She calls the prosecutor’s office to turn herself in, but Alwa wrests the phone away from her after a struggle before the prosecutor gets on the line, then covers by asking the latter whether he has any news of the fugitive. Certainly Lulu counts on Alwa not letting her go to prison and out of his life, but she cannot be sure of success, and there is no hint in the way the scene is presented, or in the shooting script, that she is bluffing – on the contrary. She is visibly relieved at the renewed proof of his love. She strokes his hair, then kneels on the floor and puts her arm around his neck. Overcome, he kisses her passionately. Then she tells him they will flee together, the countess will lend Lulu her passport.
In the next act, Alwa is caught cheating at cards in an attempt to buy Lulu’s freedom – the Marquis Casti-Piani (Michael von Newlinsky) is about to sell her to an Egyptian brothel owner. Alwa and Lulu then flee to London with Schigolch, who has disposed of another blackmailer, Rodrigo, leaving the hysterical countess with the corpse.
By the last act, Alwa is a thoroughly beaten man. In his care, Lulu has ended up where she began, forced back into prostitution to survive. When she hesitates about soliciting after Alwa comes between her and a prospective client, Schigolch applies emotional pressure, telling her how he dreamed of having one more Christmas pudding before he dies. To him she has always been a pretty piece and a meal ticket.
The last we see of Schigolch on the last night of Lulu’s life, Christmas Eve, he is enjoying that Christmas pudding – his dream come true! Because he gets what he wants in the end, Louise Brooks considers Schigolch the film’s hero.8 But then Lulu, too, gets what she wants in the end, according to her.
Pabst’s Alwa is enough his father’s son to consider it a disgrace to let Lulu sell her body for his bed and board, but he is powerless to prevent it. Why doesn’t he try harder to stop her? Because he feels unmanned and is punishing himself for his inadequacy, his abject failure to measure up to his father.
Pabst’s Lulu meets her fate in someone whose looks are fatally deceiving – an angel of death, truly. She is hesitant about soliciting or being solicited … until she sees the Ripper (Gustav Diessl). With him she takes the initiative – he was about to pass her by. He has a face that elicits sympathy in women. It encouraged the sweet-faced Salvation Army girl, another of the movie’s inventions, to approach him just before. In the Ripper Lulu finds someone bigger, younger, and better looking than Schigolch to hold her in his lap and make her feel safe and at peace.
Though Lulu will sell her body to survive, she is not happy about doing so and will try to turn the experience into something emotionally satisfying. Not only the Ripper’s looks but also his poverty – he can’t afford to pay, having given the last of his money to the Salvation Army girl – recommends him to her. Without pay, she is not prostituting herself. She is doing a comrade a kindness as well as pleasing herself. (One can imagine the movie’s Schön as another kind of charity case for Lulu the first time she slept with him.) And beyond disliking the idea of selling herself, she finds money itself somewhat unreal, as we have seen.
The Salvation Army girl offers the Ripper one kind of help, Lulu another. Sensing a troubled soul, the former asks him, “Brother, what can I do to help you?” He answers that no one can help him, and he proceeds to prove it with Lulu. He is the third and last of the desire-bedeviled men in her story. His better nature is overwhelmed by a compulsion to plunge knives into pretty young prostitutes. The Ripper carries out the death sentence called for by the prosecutor because, after nearly succumbing to Lulu’s charms himself, he sees her in the nick of time for the sham-innocent little man-destroyer she “really” is.
Lulu’s smiling face, seen in closeup, is so appealing it temporarily disarms him. He drops the opened penknife he is holding behind his back and follows her up to the apartment. She sits in his lap but fends off his eager embrace. She playfully goes through his inside coat pockets and finds the candle and sprig of mistletoe the Salvation Army girl had given him, physical links between the two girls. Lulu affixes the candle to the table, lights it, kneels before it, and gazes at it in devotion. More closeups of her beautiful rapt young face. Greasy hair, stained clothes and all, her beauty has never registered as powerfully as it does here. Impulsively, she grasps the Ripper’s extended hand, he enfolds hers with his other one. She climbs into his lap again, and they gaze at the candle together. He takes the sprig of mistletoe and raises it above her head, telling her that now she must let herself be kissed. They kiss, then embrace. However, the guttering lamp on the table calls his attention to the knife lying there, the knife she had vainly tried to cut the household’s stale loaf with earlier, and his compulsion overwhelms him. The more aroused he becomes, the more urgent his need to put an end to the source of his arousal. Lulu is clinging to him, and her eyes are closed. He grabs the knife. Her eyelids flutter as he moves to kiss her again, more passionately this time, then stabs her fatally. But all we see is Brooks’s hand, which had been holding him, open finger by finger, then drop limply. Fadeout.
The movie’s Jack the Ripper does not kill Lulu softly to spare her suffering but because, like Schön, he must end his own and he is a surgeon with the knife. Having regained his composure and his knife, he comes downstairs and disappears into the fog, watched by Alwa.
Against Schön Lulu fought for her life. With the Ripper she gives herself up to death. Lulu delivers Schön, or is the means by which he delivers himself, from an insoluble conflict. Is Lulu’s murder, then, a deliverance or fulfillment or resolution for her? Louise Brooks thinks so:
It is in the worn and filthy garments of the streetwalker that she feels passion for the first time – comes to life so that she may die. When she picks up Jack the Ripper on the foggy London street and he tells her he has no money to pay her, she says, “Never mind, I like you.” It is Christmas Eve, and she is about to receive the gift that has been her dream since childhood. Death by a sexual maniac.9
Brooks is probably thinking of Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box, but Lulu’s dream there, of a man created just for her, is actually a deceptively inviting premonition. Lulu kills the man created for her, the man who gave her a life, and the disguised Jack the Ripper is waiting to exact retribution. (However, Lulu’s dream lover in the play may have inspired scriptwriter Ladislaus Vajda’s conception of the Ripper.) Brooks’s interpretation also goes against the script’s emphasis on Lulu’s indomitable will to live.
Also, Lulu’s capacity for finding joy even in desperate circumstances is, as we see, undiminished – she resembles Schigolch in her resiliency. A Christmas dream of hers would more likely be on the order of his plum pudding – an untroubled intimate interlude, say – than the cold comfort of death.
With the Ripper as with Schön, Pabst’s Lulu has no idea what is going on in the mind of the man she is about to go to bed with, no apprehension of danger. From first to last, this Lulu is a pretty, charming child forced to negotiate among unpredictable, violence-prone, exploitive, or loving but self-divided men, a child who meets a violent, though mercifully quick, end. (Brooks herself notes that Lulu initiates nothing but merely reacts.) The illusory peacefulness of Lulu’s death heightens the pity of it, the fact that this is a child who is being expertly dispatched, and on Christmas Eve. The movie is content to make a simple, obvious point powerfully. One child (female) of obscure birth is sacrificed as the entire Western world celebrates the birth of another (male) who was himself martyred.
Wedekind’s Jack the Ripper, by contrast, is ugly, brutish, and delights in tormenting Lulu over what he is willing to pay, knowing full well she won’t live to collect it. Then, out of sight but not earshot, he gleefully eviscerates her. Wedekind’s Ripper is the horror he is because he embodies the violence latent in society’s attitude toward women and sexuality. Pabst’s Ripper has exactly the same meaning – and Lulu’s power at its peak is no match for either – except that he is also a victim of society himself. The difference between Wedekind and Pabst comes down to this: Wedekind seeks to shock or disorient us into awareness; Pabst enlists our sympathy.
The film ends with Alwa following the Salvation Army procession off-screen instead of going back upstairs. This ending may be meant as merciful, the implication being that finding Lulu’s body would have finished him altogether. Alwa can be saved.
Pabst’s unorthodox Christian ending may be easy to understand but hard to swallow. Can he have been serious or is the ending just a concession to the movie public? (Brooks’s Wedekind-like interpretation may be an attempt to get around the question, in defense of Pabst’s honor as an artist.) Concession or not, the religious ending accords with the rest of the film and the other changes the director and his scriptwriter made to the plays. And it is foreshadowed by that large bas-relief of a supplicant in Schön’s and Lulu’s bedroom, which figures both in his death scene and in the post-trial scene between her and Alwa. In the final scene, Lulu herself is the supplicant. As her portrait as Pierrot presides over Wedekind’s plays, even returning to witness her murder, so the image of the supplicant presides over Pabst’s film.
- Tynan, “The Girl in the Black Helmet,” The New Yorker, June 11, 1979, reprinted in Reflections on Pandora’s Box, the booklet accompanying the 2006 Criterion Collection edition of the film, p. 57. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 67 [↩]
- Her comments come from her essay “Pabst and Lulu,” part of the collection of her writing gathered in Lulu in Hollywood, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1983. [↩]
- Lulu in Hollywood, pp. 97-98 [↩]
- Classic Film Scripts: Pandora’s Box, Simon and Schuster, 1971, p. 32. [↩]
- Kael was one of the film’s early champions in the U.S. The quote appears on p. 563 of a compendium of her short reviews, 5001 Nights at the Movies, published by Henry Holt and Co. in 1991. [↩]
- Lulu in Hollywood, p. 103. [↩]
- Lulu in Hollywood, p. 101 [↩]
- Lulu in Hollywood, p. 104 [↩]