Critical fashions come and go, and at the moment Fritz Lang and F W Murnau are up and G W Pabst is down where German film-makers of the 20s and early 30s are concerned. Nevertheless, Pabst was a remarkable director, capable of creating films in which atmosphere is as much created by small detail as by more grandiose effects.
He was also an actor’s director and his most memorable star was Louise Brooks, the American actress who found in him the perfect foil for her talents in Pandora’s Box and Diary Of A Lost Girl. She was the Marilyn Monroe of her time, of whom a French critic wrote: ‘She is the only woman who had the ability to transfigure no matter what film into a masterpiece.’
After these two films for Pabst, this ex-Ziegfeld Follies girl known for liking a good time but also for reading Schopenhauer between takes, went back to America and began a tragic slide into destitution.
She was rediscovered in the 50s when Kenneth Tynan wrote a remarkable essay about her and Henri Langlois, the famous head of the French Cinematheque uttered the memorable words: ‘There is no Garbo. There is no Dietrich. There is only Louise Brooks!’
Brooks found in Franz Wedekind’s Lulu, renamed Pandora’s Box by Pabst, the perfect expression of her beauty and eroticism; it was much more intelligent than the parts she had to play in Hollywood. Many think the part chased her for the rest of her life. In fact, once rediscovered, she became a writer and critic of some note before she died in 1985.
Pabst made sure that Brooks was pre-eminently Wedekind’s idea of Lulu – a beautiful innocent who passively accepts her sexuality and causes the weak men who adore her to self-destruct. She is the prostitute as scapegoat, tragic but with no sense of sin, who is eventually killed by Jack the Ripper. Pabst realised that, as well as being a beautiful woman, Brooks – as an ex-dancer – was an actress who could move across the screen in a way which expressed feelings as much others do with their faces. He gave her dresses which symbolised her character and condition – spotless white satin when she kills her husband and worn and dirty garments when she picks up the Ripper on the foggy London street.
Those who think the merits of the film are entirely those of Brooks take no account of this, or the way he created the atmosphere of sexual delirium that pervades what was at that time a dangerously shocking film. It still remains an intensely sexy one. This was also expressionism put to use with unerring skill as a commentary on the social hypocrisy of the time.
Pabst was condemned in Germany for making a scandalous version of the play which hitherto had been performed as if Lulu was a man-eater devouring her sexual victims (Asta Nielsen in the film Loulou). There was also the shock of the cinema’s first openly lesbian scene, in which the Belgian actress Alice Roberts as Countess Geschwitz attempts to make love to Lulu.
Brooks herself was castigated as a non-actress (perhaps because she was not German). And even during the shooting there was controversy, with Kortner, the famous German actor who played Dr Schon who would have doubtless preferred the young and then rather tarty-looking Marlene Dietrich in the part ‘ refusing to speak to Brooks throughout.
In Britain, the lesbian episodes were excised and in France Lulu’s death at the hands of the Ripper was substituted for her conversion by the Salvation Army.
Both Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl were soon stored away and the original uncut versions misplaced. But in the 50s these two extraordinary works, illuminating the power and presence of a great star, came to be put beside Joyless Street, The Threepenny Opera, Westfront and Kameradschaft as Pabst’s masterworks.