“There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks,” Henri Langlois
With silent films back on the agenda thanks to the much-anticipated release of The Artist, it seemed pertinent to reassess the impact of one of the greatest – Pandora’s Box, directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, and starring the iconic Louise Brooks. Choosing Brooks to play the part of Lulu (over other popular contemporary actresses, including Marlene Dietrich) was a masterstroke, although the extent to which Brooks would impact the film could not have been predicted. Seeming to exude the very essence of the character of whom she portrayed, much later in her life, Brooks commented, “It was clever of Pabst to know even before he met me that I possessed the tramp essence of Lulu”. Pandora’s Box cemented Brooks’ place as a screen icon, although thanks to her refusal to fit the Hollywood mould, her success was to be relatively short-lived.
Lulu captivates everyone she meets – male and female alike. Her sexual assertiveness is tempered with a childlike innocence; she is by turns generous, manipulative, heedless and ambiguous. It seems she can charm just about anyone – including Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), a relationship reported to be the first overt lesbian subplot in cinema. It’s interesting to note that, in much of the film, Lulu wears white – as a shade more commonly associated with purity it jars sharply with her femme fatale persona.
By turns restrained and emotive, Brooks knew exactly how to play Lulu, shading her with psychological nuances that wouldn’t be recognised for years. Pabst allows the camera to linger on Brooks and her barely imperceptible facial expressions. The result? A rounded and ultimately sympathetic character that captures the imagination of the audience without words.
The film opens with Lulu ‘entertaining’ several admirers in her well-appointed apartment. She is immediately identified by her sharp bob – graphic and sleek, a subtle nod to androgyny and the Art Deco movement – it was the way Brooks had always worn her hair, but Pabst was keen to recognize the potential of the style. The only time Lulu appears to be vulnerable is in the scene that takes place on the gambling ship – and coincidently the only time she wears her hair up and curled – a decidedly more feminine look.
In the opening scene, Brooks is clad in white floaty chiffon dress with wide sleeves, a narrow v neckline and wide draped sleeves – a classic flapper style that offers ease and freedom of movement. With her raised eyebrows and seemingly willing hostess qualities, she exudes an incredible warmth, energy and vitality, although her profession is immediately apparent. Lulu also wears white in two other pivotal scenes. For her marriage to Schön costume designer Gottlieb Hesch created an off-the-shoulder dress, worn with a simple veil and heeled shoes, in a later scene, when Brooks is comforting Schön’s bereaved son Alwa, she wears a white satin dress that is the very epitome of demure…luckily the audience knows better.
There are notable exceptions to Lulu’s all-white attire – and it’s those costumes that linger in the mind long after the film is finished. Her backstage seduction of Schön is accompanied by a ‘classic’ flapper dress, complete with sequin embellishment, fringing and a low scoop back style – a feature that shows off her toned and muscular dancers back to perfection. Accessorised with a triumphant smirk and sheer force of will – Schön is powerless to resist. The defining ‘look’ is the striking all-black outfit that she wears at her murder trial. Lifting the draped veil (she is in mourning after all), she flirts with the prosecutor, who becomes so flustered she is able to escape from the courtroom.
If silent films are your thing, Louise Brooks herself left behind a series of essays that offer an astounding insight into the era. Lulu in Hollywood, published in 1982 is the perfect way to wile away a few post-Christmas hours….and who better than to analyse her character’s attire than Louise herself?
My final defeat, which made me cry real tears, came at the end of [Pandora’s Box], when [G.W. Pabst] went through my trunks to select a dress to be ‘aged’ for Lulu’s murder as a streetwalker in the arms of Jack the Ripper. With his instinctive understanding of my tastes, he decided on the blouse and skirt of my very favorite suit. I was anguished. “Why can’t you buy some cheap little dress to be ruined? Why does it have to be my dress?” To these questions I got no answer till the next morning, when my once lovely clothes were returned to me in the studio dressing room. They were torn and foul with grease stains. Not some indifferent rags from the wardrobe department but my own suit, which only last Sunday I had worn to lunch at the Adlon Hotel! Josifine hooked up my skirt, I slipped the blouse over my head, and I went on the set feeling as hopelessly defiled as my clothes. Working in that outfit, I didn’t care what happened to me…
I did not realize until I saw Pandora’s Box in 1956 how marvelously Mr. Pabst’s perfect costume sense symbolized Lulu’s character and her destruction. There is not a single spot of blood on the pure-white bridal stain in which she kills her husband. Making love to her wearing the clean white peignoir, Alva asks, “Do you love me, Lulu?” “I? Never a soul!” It is in the worn and filthy garments of the streetwalker that she feels passion for the first time–come to life so that she may die.
–Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood