Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box.
Everett Collection

There are few tragic heroines more alluring than Lulu, the heartbeat of Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, brought to life by a performer whose image—the winsome, mischievous eyes, the glossy, art-deco bob—remains a symbol of sexual charisma and freedom. Louise Brooks’ Lulu is both a wily opportunist and a sympathetic survivor. She’s the kept woman of a powerful newspaper publisher (played by German stage actor Fritz Kortner, who’s said to have despised Brooks, stomping off the set the instant he’d finished a scene with her), and when her position is threatened by his bland blonde fiancée, she summons infinite reserves of petulance to get him to marry her instead. She’ll be the death of him, he knows, but her ill-advised marriage is also the beginning of her own fatal spiral: the picture’s ending quietly knocks the wind out of you, because over the course of the movie’s runtime, a world without Brooks’ Lulu comes to seem unimaginable. Pandora’s Box was based on a duo of plays by German playwright Frank Wedekind, and upon its release, critics in Berlin and elsewhere reviled Pabst’s adaptation, and Brooks’ performance in particular. The consensus at the time was that she couldn’t act. She certainly could, though what she brings to Pandora’s Box goes far beyond technique. To watch her today is to become her prisoner all over again. She’s as dismissible as a moonbeam.

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