Friday, July 25, 2003

Pandora's Box (Pabst, 1929) A- Diary of a Lost Girl (Pabst, 1929) B+

Whoever's maintaining that altar to Louise Brooks, save some incense. I'll be there for worship tomorrow.

In Pandora's Box, Brooks plays Lulu (basically Aphrodite in a Lulu bob), goes around bewitching men with just by batting her eyes and curling her lips. She's irresistible, shuffling men like a deck of cards. What's thrilling is that Brooks makes you believe that even Jack the Ripper would turn helpless and weak when Lulu throws The Look at him. Brooks is *that* enchanting. Let's not forget the director Pabst, who's an extraordinarily lyrical filmmaker with a superb way of cutting between iconic close-ups and beautiful master shots that frame figures to one side. Pabst is like a materialist Sternberg, gazing pitilessly at people's capacity for greed and avarice. His is a world where the bottom line ultimately trumps everything -- loyalty, blood ties, friendship, even desire.

That materialist strain runs through the more sentimental melodrama Diary of a Lost Girl, which is exactly the kind of movie you'd expect from that title: an innocent's downward spiral of sexual degradation (which recalls for me the subsequently made Life of Oharu (1952) and Blonde Venus (1932)). The Mark, not psychosexual anxiety, ultimately dominates the lives of those who live in Pabst's Weimar Republic, though Pabst does a little bait-and-switch by playing the film first as an attack on the cruelty of traditionalism, especially its insistence on female purity. That's what motivated the family to abandon virginal Thymiane (Brooks), who was impregnated by her rapist. By throwing Thymiane into the gutter, Pabst places that pre-Reich German anxiety about money and livelihood in bold relief: "I gave the money to my sister so she wouldn't live the life I lead" the Brooks' fallen woman declares near the end of the film. Lost Girl lacks the electricity of Pandora's unabashed sexuality and chiaroscuro lighting. The trajectory is rather conventional, but it's sparked by a powerfully restrained *performance* by Brooks and Pabst's keen eye for gestures, walks, necks, and the elegant way in which a body turns. By emphasizing above all else smoky ambience, posing, gesture, dramatic lighting, iconic acting and human weakness, German Expressionism is the really the most *interesting* and timeless silent granddaddy of them all, the progenitor of everything from noir to Fassbinder to Wong Kar-wai. But above all, these Pabst films are loving odes to one of the most seductive movie goddesses of all-time. Where have you been all my life, Lulu?