1929: Pandora's Box
This week I'm thinking about adding a new category to my newsletter/blog. For several years on Tumblr I would reblog or occasionally post artifacts from the years 1890-1939 with the tag "the world ended in 1939," which I'm not sure I ever fully explained. Of course I don't actually believe that the world ended then, or that those years were in any way "better" than those that followed. Insofar as they were years of naked colonial exploitation, overtly murderous white supremacy, oppressive gender hierarchies, and capitalism running roughshod over the poor, they were demonstrably worse than the generations that followed; although by the same token they were years which progressed significantly on those fronts compared to the generations that preceded them. And I happen to have more instinctive aesthetic sympathy for some of the surface textures and formal habits of the period than for what replaced them; as should be obvious considering the focus of so much else I write about in this space. I use "the world ended in 1939" as a way of fencing off the period of history I'm interested in focusing on from the otherwise inevitable drift of attention toward the more recent past, and if I'm honest as a bit of rhetorical pugnacity toward those of my interlocutors who may not value the period as much as I do. If the world's cultural output had ended in 1939, what riches might we still be left with? How much could it nourish us?
In any case, I've been thinking for a while about reviving that old tag as a title for swimming around in the film production of those years. I often say that I don't care about movies, by which I mean that I refuse to participate in the general cultural hierarchy which places film at the top of the aesthetic heap: prose and music and cartooning matter more to me, and are more deeply underappreciated by comparison. But it's not literally true that I don't care about movies. Some individual movies have mattered quite a lot to me, and given the depth and richness of cinematic production over the last century and more, only willful obtuseness could keep me from appreciating at least a fraction of its quality. I fell in love with the old studio era of Hollywood in childhood, when my parents would let us rent VHS tapes from the "Classics" section of the video store because they were usually guaranteed to be wholesome, not to mention less repetitive than the videos in the "Kids" section; and I still have never really loved the texture of any subsequent film technology quite so much as silver nitrate.
So I'm going to try to watch or rewatch some of the movies that enriched the period before 1940 and record my impressions here. I expect this to be rather difficult for me, as I have not cultivated the art of sitting still and watching a movie at home; in middle age I have leaned rather heavily into certain ADHD tendencies, typically playing iPad games while "watching" anything, and I can't remember the last time I watched a movie straight through if I wasn't at a theater. But over the past week I compiled a list of over 1,200 silent films from the 1920s (excluding cartoons and most comedy shorts) that are available to be viewed in some form or another. I won't try to watch them all; the vast majority don't interest me in the slightest. But whenever I'm confronted with a canon I'm compelled to try to construct my own alternate one.
The movie I started with is perhaps as canonical as it gets. Die Büchse der Pandora was not a major success when it premiered in 1929, but over the past century its reputation has grown to the point that it's generally one of the top four or five silent films recommended to anyone curious about the period. I've owned the Criterion edition since it was released in 2006, but I hadn't actually watched the film until this past weekend. I'd seen Diary of a Lost Girl and read Louise Brooks' memoirs, but I'm always shy about tackling any highly-acclaimed work of art, less for fear that it won't grip me than because of my awareness that my appreciation of it will be superfluous. So here goes the superfluity.
Franz Wedekind's Lulu plays have functioned as one of the central myths of the twentieth century, which is a criticism of the twentieth century as much as it is a valuation of the plays. The central argument their plot suggests, that untrammeled female sexuality is an irresistibly destructive force, is more or less unreconstructed nineteenth-century bourgeois moralism, but their refusal to condemn Lulu (or the lesbian countess in love with her), instead turning their gimlet gaze on the weakness, futility, and shabbiness of the men who desire her, is pure modernism; as are many of the adaptations, from Alban Berg's opera to G. W. Pabst's film.
The plays had previously been adapted to film in Germany in 1923, with angular Danish star Asta Nielsen as a very Expressionistic, theatrical Lulu. Pabst's origins in the New Objectivity movement, a dispassionate, socially-conscious reaction to the Romantically aestheticized excesses of Expressionism, are plain in his version of the Lulu myth: his use of symbolism is sparing (the Expressionist sculpture in Schön's bedroom, which takes up most of the frame during the climactic Act 4 death, is almost hilarious in its heavy-handedness), and even when the frame pulses with life and energy, as in the marvelous backstager of Act 3, the trial of Act 5, or the gaming-hell of Act 7, there's always a certain grounded skepticism to his level, unimpressed camera.
Louise Brooks as Lulu is such a perfect fusion of performer and part that the role has defined her in the public imagination since at least the 1950s, when the film was rediscovered and hailed as a masterpiece by a generation that had learned to appreciate Past's witty, uninflected style, Brooks' restrained performance, and the film's lack of interest in moralizing about sexuality. Her black bob, now synonymous with 1920s chic, was relatively little-known then, with Colleen Moore's less severe cut being much more popular (not to mention the more variegated hairstyles of Clara Bow, Norma Shearer, or Gloria Swanson), though on the other hand it would probably have been more immediately seen as the Orientalism it was: an Orientalism which remains subtextual in the film (an unobtrusive near-menorah in her apartment, the vaguely Middle Eastern theme of the revue she stars in, and the Black dancers who immediately precede her in it, about whom I immediately wanted the movie to be instead) but would certainly have been understood as an index to her sexual freedom.
Her lithe dancer's body and quick, disarming smile are so deeply encoded into what sexual desirability is supposed to be that it can feel sometimes as though the whole movie is as clogged with the London fog that suffuses Act 8, as you fight to see through successive generations of male gaze to the actual performance, and the actual photography, of 1929. Not that I think Pabst's camera abjures the male gaze, but it does strike me as uninterested in catering to its fantasy: Alice Roberts' poker-faced Countess Geschwitz does most of the overt ogling in the film, and although Lulu charms, she never outright seduces. It's notable that she's at her most miserable in Act 7, when Brooks' famous bangs are swept up into a more fashionable hairstyle, and all that exposed forehead makes her look more hunted and anxious than she ever does while on trial for her life or living in squalor in London.
I'm very glad to have finally watched this movie, more than ten years after I really should have; part of the point of writing this newsletter is to force myself to engage with art I already believe is valuable even when I haven't always thoroughly experienced it.