The most consequential actor in the most consequential movie that you may never have heard of: the Lulu franchise, Louise Brooks, and "Pandora's Box"

The cross-media creative franchise (think "Wonder Woman", from comics to film), is the apotheosis of the commercial potential of derivative works within the copyright system. Here, there, and everywhere, the celluloid adaptation of previously created contents is so 21st century.

But the cross media franchise is hardly a modern phenomenon. One of the first was the Lulu franchise in Germany, reaching back to the late 19th century, and spanning theatre, movies and opera, and further afield a raft of follow-on books and articles. For this Kat, Lulu can mean only one thing: Louise Brooks (1906-1985) in the 1929 silent movie, "Pandora's Box".

The franchise begins with two plays written by German dramatist Frank Wedekind, er Erdgeist (1895; Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904; Pandora’s Box). The main protagonist is Lulu, of uncertain background, sexual and erotic, who goes through multiple husbands and assorted sordid adventures before herself is killed by Jack the Ripper.

The ambiguity of her character is reflected in the various attempts at explanation, here: (i) a classic femme fatale with a seemingly endless ability to destroy men; (ii) sexual emancipation to gain power, undergirded by the Freudian notion of engendering immediate sexual gratification; (iii) a harbinger of a new morality unshackled by bourgeois society: and (iv) sexuality characterized by a child-like innocence and vulnerability, being "simply what she is".

Mary Poppins, she is not. Add to this a sub-plot of lesbian attraction and various layers of social criticism, and it is easy to understand why Lulu was the harbinger of the German (and beyond) theatrical and cinematic expressionism.

Wedekind and his Lola dramas were not created out of whole cloth. It likely borrowed from the French work "Lulu" by Félicien Champsaur, which he viewed in Paris in the early 1890s. Some also point to the real life character Lola Montez, who like Lulu, came from humble origins but succeeded in creating an exotic, erotic persona. And, of course, Jack the Ripper and his murderous rampage, still fresh in mind at the time.

From there, the Lulu franchise moved to a 1917 German silent film, here, followed by the 1921 silent film, "Pandora's Box", as well as other adaptations in various formats. As such, the story of Pandora's Box was well known by the time of the 1929 movie.

To round off this multi-generational entertainment franchise, mention is made of the opera, "Lulu", by composer Alban Berg (performed in incomplete form in 1937, completed in 1979), and a 1962 movie version, here. The Lulu franchise has gone whole circle and then some—from the stage play to silent movies to sound films and opera.

But now for this Kat's blogging labor of love—the 1929 movie, by the pioneering Expressionist film director Georg Wilhelm Pabst, and starring Louise Brooks. The story line embodies the broad strokes of the original Wedekind plays. What makes the film so special was a combination of Pabst's understanding of the use black and white, light and shadow, and camera angle, and of course, the acting presence of Brooks.

It cannot be underestimated the artistic challenge of adapting a stage play to a silent movie. Unlike adapting a book, story or comics to film, a silent movie requires transforming the verbal into the visual. Few have succeeded; Pandora's Box is a rare example, often included in the list of the greatest movies of all time.

Brooks (22 at the time) infuses Lulu with a sexual innocence, as seductive as she is destructive to others and ultimately to herself. Until the end, she is who she is—commanding our viewing attention while seemingly not acting. She feeds from the previous creative expressions of the Lulu franchise, but she (and Pabst) give it a creative meaning all its own.

Her cinematic attraction was perhaps best-expressed by Henri Langlois, the cinephile and film preservationist.
Those who have seen her can never forget her. She is the modern actress par excellence. . . . As soon as she takes the screen, fiction disappears along with art, and one has the impression of being present at a documentary. The camera seems to have caught her by surprise, without her knowledge. She is the intelligence of the cinematic process, the perfect incarnation of that which is photogenic; she embodies all that the cinema rediscovered in its last years of silence: complete naturalness and complete simplicity. Her art is so pure that it becomes invisible.
For this Kat, all this best comes to play in the final scene. Reduced to prostitution in London, Lulu is approached by Jack the Ripper, who tells her that he has no money. No matter, Lulu invites him up because she likes him. All is light and laughter until they embrace, the screen turns dark, and Lulu's arm gradually recedes, having been stabbed. She is Lulu until the end, without regrets.

The movie was not a success in 1929, in part because Brooks was the only American in this European (mostly German) production, playing no less than Lulu. Critics slammed her for seemingly "not acting", but just being herself. Langlois put paid to that claim, bringing on a reappraisal of the movie and Brooks as a pioneer of modern film. In many ways, Brooks was not acting, but just being herself before the camera.

She was born in the Kansas in the American Midwest (as per Dorothy in the "Wizard of Oz"--"Toto, I don't think that we are in Kansas anymore"), the daughter of a small-town lawyer and his independent wife. Ferociously intelligent and a voracious reader, Brooks made her way to New York, with the intention of becoming a dancer. She moved from dance to silent movies, from affair to affair (including with Charlie Chaplain and William Paley, a founder of CBS), until Papst offered her to come to Germany to play Lulu (he preferring Brooks to Marlene Dietrich).

Despite having a wonderful speaking voice, which should have eased her career in the era of the sound movie, it was not to be. Brooks' assertiveness did not mesh with the culture of Hollywood. By 1938, her film career was over, and she drifted for decades, from dance studio to retail sales to escort services, from alcoholism to suicidal tendencies, before being rediscovered in the 1950's.

She went on to be the writer of a successful collection of essays about Hollywood, "Lulu in Hollywood", while living mostly as a recluse in Rochester, New York, the home of Kodak. Often few copies, and sometimes no copy, of a silent film would survive. To remedy this, the company maintained a Museum that collected films of all kinds, including the largest collection of Brooks' films.

A curator (and fan of Brooks) located her in New York City and moved her to Rochester. Ultimately, Brooks and her version of the Lulu franchise gained the recognition that it deserved.

As Langlois is reported to have said—"There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks." Not bad.

More on Brooks and Pandora's Box-- here, an article published in The New Yorker magazine in 1979 and republished this past summer, which was key in restoring the reputation of Brooks and the movie; and here, "Lulu in Rochester".

The most consequential actor in the most consequential movie that you may never have heard of: the Lulu franchise, Louise Brooks, and "Pandora's Box" The most consequential actor in the most consequential movie that you may never have heard of: the Lulu franchise,  Louise Brooks, and "Pandora's Box" Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Monday, January 23, 2023 Rating: 5

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