It's one of the great actor-director relationships, right up there with Scorsese and DeNiro, and Dietrich and Von Sternberg. But the career-defining collaboration between GW Pabst and Louise Brooks almost didn't happen. Pabst had searched all over Europe for a Lulu befitting the free-spirited heroine of Frank Wederkind's plays Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box. He wanted to cast Louise Brooks from the moment he saw her in Howard Hawks's A Girl in Every Port (1928), but she was under contract to Paramount Studios. She only became free when her contract negotiations broke down, thereby angering and disappointing Marlene Dietrich.
Pandora's Box – the first of two pictures that Pabst and Brooks would make together – is certainly an odd picture. It was made on the eve of the talkies and flopped in the US on its initial release. Scenes and takes are longer than in most contemporaneous films, with Brooks giggling and swaying and bouncing through every early scene. Flappers gonna flap. There are shades of German expressionism around the margins and a Weimar Republic energy – the film was shot by Gunther Krampf, who had filmed Murnau's Nosferatu in 1922 – yet against the exquisite filters and lighting, Pabst strives for some kind of naturalism.
The film needs that grounding to counterpoint its music hall-friendly excesses. At heart, Pandora's Box is a lurid melodrama about a woman who refuses to conform to the expectations of society. Lulu (Brooks) is both kept and curtailed by a series of men. The sight of "first patron" is frightful, but her luck truly runs out after she marries a wealthy doctor and newspaper editor, snatching him away from another, more "respectable" fiancee.
His sexual possessiveness leads to murder and a series of sensational plot twists, wherein Lulu attempts to evade sexual slavery and Jack the Ripper, with a little help from some friends, including an acrobat, a lesbian and a boozy dwarf.
Brooks often claimed that she was simply playing herself. She was probably being modest. Lotte Eisner, one of the great film writers of the 20th century once asked: “Was Louise Brooks a great artist or only a dazzling creature whose beauty leads the spectator to endow her with complexities of which she herself was unaware?” She revised that opinion after meeting and befriending the actor: “Today we know that Louise Brooks is an astonishing actress endowed with an intelligence beyond compare and not only a dazzling creature,” she wrote.
There is something hypnotically unbridled about Brooks's performance. It's a great pity that she left Europe after shooting Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) and Miss Europe (1930), and worse, that Hollywood never knew what to do with her. She retired from movies in 1938, two decades before French critics realised Pandora's Box was a masterpiece.