Pandora's Box (1929)

Ali Smith on Louise Brooks: ‘the revelation of movement’

I can’t believe I have been keeping this one to myself. As part of the process of writing a book on Pandora’s Box, I took a chance and wrote to a woman who I admire hugely, and who I know is a serious Louise Brooks aficionado. The novelist Ali Smith kindly agreed to answer a few hastily gathered questions on Brooks. Her answers were so eloquent, and inspirational, that I wanted to share them in full with you here …

Ali Smith
Ali Smith

It’s very common, since the 1960s, to talk about films belonging to directors. One hardly ever hears those auteurist labels on Brooks’s European films. I wondered if you felt these films mean something different when labelled as the work of their star rather than their director?

I kind of don’t care, and have never been much interested in labels. They’re always simplifications. But labels definitely preserve things over time, so thank god for that, and for the little flags they erect on the surface of knowledge so that people can see where to go to dig down deeper. I do despair, though, of the way our individual and common knowledge, both, get so lost so fast. Brooks, lost after the silent masterpiece years, till she died, was reclaimed in the 70s and 80s. I saw Pandora’s Box on TV in, I think, 1981. My mother, who wasn’t one for idle speculation or idle interests in things on TV, or idle anything, and who always went off to bed early, stayed up till 1am watching the film with me, till she couldn’t stay up any later, and in the morning the first thing she asked me was what happened at the end of that film?

Thirty years later, we have to do it all again – I heard your piece on Woman’s Hour, and sensed Jenni Murray’s astonishment at encountering Brooks for the first time. I was amazed – how could people not know Brooks? How could such a central cultural commentator not have her in her bones? (Unless she was simply being a kind introducer of Brooks to a listening audience who might bot know her.)* Where does that knowledge go? Here you are, doing that vital task.


You’ll know the brilliant writing Angela Carter did about her – and about just that reclamation (in fact Carter gifts the reclamation, the living-till-you’re-old-enough-to-be-rediscovered, to Monroe too in a gorgeous vision of imaginative generosity). And now, every 10 years, we have to remind everyone about Carter too. And I was talking to a roomful of film fans the other night and nobody but me had seen Sagan’s Madchen in Uniform, one of the first really astonishingly layered sound films, a prescient pre-teller of the world war to come, a work of immense filmic and thematic ambition and sensitivity. Aieeeee! We think we know everything. All we know is the surface, unless we go deeper. Thank God for the urge to know things dimensionally. Brooks’s brilliance, by which I mean all the ways she was brilliant (visually, in movement, in control of image, in uncompromising nature, in intelligence), is one such dimensionaliser.

You specifically requested a picture of Brooks on the cover of Free Love and Other Stories. In your story ‘To the Cinema’ in that collection, the narrator talks about having a picture postcard of Brooks on the wall before ever seeing one of her films. Did you hope that the readers of the book would fall under a similar spell of that image? Almost as if you were distributing one more image of Brooks into the world, to have that effect?

Yes – I wanted the still from Diary of a Lost Girl on the front particularly because at the heart of that film it’s a climactic moment of liberation, difference and ecstasy, all at once, and all in such a radical location. But above all, it’s such a glorious image – the unfastening of the human being, into beauty. Also, I’m a huge fan of Brooks’s writing, and of her power, when you go anywhere near anything she did, to dispel gender and sexual preconception – always always simultaneously honouring intelligence. The beauty of intelligence – the intelligence of beauty – the life of both, in union.

Louise Brooks Pandora's Box (1929)
Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box (1929)

Is there another actress whose static image has the same power as Brooks’? I am thinking about the picture of, I think it’s Monica Vitti, in How to be Both.

Well, yes, there are hundreds of actors, actresses whose static images are immensely powerful. But Brooks is arresting and lifeforce-resonant in stasis and movement, where Ingrid Bergman‘s image-magic, say, is particularly revealed in her movement. But you know what this question makes me think about ? It’s the moment at the end of the 90s documentary called Remembering Anne Frank, where the director plays the tiny moment in film footage they found of Anne Frank, bright and small, leaning out of a window watching a wedding in her neighbourhood. The revelation of movement, in someone so known in the static and the written form, was for me blastingly – yes – moving. And it also makes me think of the moment, somewhere in the film called Paris was a Woman, where Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas are sitting in a cafe or a bar and we see them smile, even laugh – again the movement is incredibly revealing, endearing, again dimensionalising.

Somehow Brooks can do all these things in both. Her still images are full of movement. Her moving images preserve, even when she’s swinging on the strongman’s arm at the start of Pandora’s Box, the energy of stasis.

I also wonder if you think that there is a difference between Brooks in a photograph and in a film?
I think the amazing thing about Brooks is that she’s a force of both in both.

Pandora's Box (1929)
Pandora’s Box (1929)

You chose Pandora’s Box in your top 10 films for the Sight & Sound in 2012. Your list is beautiful – so many wonderful female characters for one thing. And lots of silent films. Do silent films have a special appeal to you?
I love early cinema. I love it. I love all the languages that work without words, and I love how swiftly film narrative knew and worked out how to tell complex, layered stories, in something close to immediacy. In other words I love how it went straight to the root of narrative, narrative needs and narrative freedoms. I love the uncanny of it, how it makes stasis move, how it reveals the life in the gone, and vice versa.

I’m a big fan, too of Chaplin, who made it clear that the first real hero of the 20th century, and maybe of all our centuries, is an everyman, a wanderer, an outcast. He knew, just like Brooks, that we live and we understand by momentary nuance, by a communicating of light and energy, and by the revelation these communications bring about of the shared life in all of us.


* I very much suspect that this is true.

4 thoughts on “Ali Smith on Louise Brooks: ‘the revelation of movement’”

  1. Thank you, I enjoyed reading that interview. I began to explore silent film about three years ago as a kind of ‘worthy-but-dull’ project to learn more about cinema. I imposed a three month rule under which I would only watch silent films, but soon found that I began to appreciate them not as homework or museum pieces necessary to understand cinematic history, but as exciting and beguiling pieces of art.

  2. Thank you, I enjoyed reading that interview. I began to explore silent film about three years ago as a kind of ‘worthy-but-dull’ project to learn more about cinema. I imposed a three month rule under which I would only watch silent films, but soon found that I began to appreciate them not as homework or museum pieces necessary to understand cinematic history, but as exciting and beguiling pieces of art.

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