Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

German director G. W. Pabst’s film Die Büchse der Pandora, or Pandora’s Box, features what is likely the first lesbian character in cinematic history.

Summary of Event

“Lulu is not a real character,” German playwright Frank Wedekind said of his creation. Instead, Lulu is “the personification of primitive sexuality who inspires evil unaware.” As an archetypal femme fatale, Lulu was originally conceived as an insatiable male fantasy figure, possessing an irresistible eroticism that leads her lovers to their doom. The so-called “Lulu plays,” "Lulu plays"[Lulu plays] Erdgeist (Earth spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box), were well known by Berlin theatergoers when they opened in 1929. [kw]Pandora’s Box Opens (1929) Pandora’s Box (film)[Pandoras Box] Film;and lesbian sex[lesbian sex] Lesbian sexuality;in early film[film] [c]Arts;1929: Pandora’s Box Opens[0310] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1929: Pandora’s Box Opens[0310] Pabst, Georg Wilhelm Wedekind, Frank Brooks, Louise

Actress, Louise Brooks, c. 1927.

German film director G. W. Pabst condensed the plays into a single film. Pabst, however, transformed the character of Lulu from Wedekind’s turn-of-the-century man-eater into a modern “New Woman,” freely expressing her sexuality without thought of the consequences. To embody this modern spirit, Pabst searched for the ideal actor who would be able to radiate both a childlike innocence and a smoldering sensuality. After a two-year search, he found these qualities and more in the American actor Louise Brooks.

Pabst’s choice was controversial. Marlene Dietrich, who coveted the part, was rejected by Pabst because he thought her “too old and too obvious.” German audiences were appalled that “their” Lulu would be played by an American actor, but Pabst knew what he was doing. He was looking to extend his film beyond the traditional German expressionist style of filmmaking into a more modernist piece, and the twenty-two-year-old Brooks, with her sleek black bob and androgynous slenderness, had the look he was seeking.

In Pandora’s Box, Lulu attracts potential lovers regardless of gender. Belgian actor Alice Roberts portrays the countess Anna Geschwitz, who is passionately in love with Lulu. Though Lulu impetuously agrees to marry Dr. Schön, she continues her love affair with Geschwitz. The most overt scene features the countess and Lulu dancing together cheek-to-cheek on Lulu’s wedding night. By her loving gazes at Lulu and her jealous glares at rival male suitors, the countess leaves no doubt in the mind of the audience of her sexual orientation. In her splendid collection of essays, Lulu in Hollywood, Brooks recounted Alice Roberts’s uneasiness portraying same-gender desire during the filming.

She [Roberts] came on the set looking chic in her Paris evening dress and [was] aristocratically self-possessed. Then Mr. Pabst began explaining the action of the scene in which she was to dance the tango with me. Suddenly, she understood that she was to touch, to embrace, to make love to another woman. Her blue eyes bulged and her hands trembled.

Pabst then whisked Roberts away and told her that he would position himself in such a way so that she could gaze lovingly at him, and he would return the loving looks to her off camera. This seemed to calm Roberts’s panic, and Brooks acknowledged the silliness of this. Brooks wrote, “Out of the funny complexity of this design Mr. Pabst extracted his tense portrait of sterile lesbian passion, and Mme Roberts satisfactorily preserved her reputation.”

Brooks, it seems, had her own concerns about the public confusing her on-screen persona with her private life. “At the time,” Brooks said,

I thought her conduct was silly. The fact that the public could believe an actress’ private life to be like the one in a role in a film did not come home to me until I was visited by a French student last year. Explaining why the young people of Paris loved Lulu, he put an uneasy thought in my head. “You talk as if I were a lesbian in real life,” I said. “But of course!” he answered in a way that made me laugh to realize I had been living in cinematic perversion for thirty-five years.

Brooks, however, was notoriously inconsistent when discussing her lesbian acquaintances, and to the degree she participated with these women sexually is anyone’s guess. Though she admitted to preferring men’s bodies, in her biography there are references to trysts with Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankhead, and Marion Davies’ niece, Pepi Lederer. Sexuality, on or off screen, was certainly not something Brooks was squeamish about, and she was savvy enough to know that by cultivating an image of bisexuality, Bisexuality;Louise Brooks[Brooks] she was following in the footsteps of other notable screen sirens of the era.

Significance

Upon its initial release, Pandora’s Box was unenthusiastically received both in Europe and in the United States. Nearly one-third of the film was cut to appease the censors. U.S. audiences would not even see the film in its entirety until a restored version was released thirty years later.

Brooks was pulled from obscurity by the declaration of Henri Langlois, director of the Cinema Française, who said, “There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!” During this period, the film and its star underwent a major revival, and many film critics consider Pandora’s Box a masterpiece of world cinema. It has secured its place in GLBT history with the inclusion of the first-known, explicitly drawn lesbian character in film history. Pandora’s Box (film)[Pandoras Box] Film;and lesbian sex[lesbian sex] Lesbian sexuality;in early film[film]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Atwell, Lee. G. W. Pabst. Boston: Twayne, 1977.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, Louise. Lulu in Hollywood. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elsaesser, Thomas. “Lulu and the Meter Man: Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929).” In German Film and Literature: Adaptations and Transformations, by Eric Rentschler. New York: Methuen, 1986.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paris, Barry. Louise Brooks: A Biography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vajda, Ladislaus, and Joseph R. Fliesner. Pandora’s Box (LuLu): A Film by G. W. Pabst. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.

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