This is an extended version of a paper that I gave at the British Silent Film Festival Symposium at King’s College London on 7 April 2017. My book on Pandora’s Box (1929) is forthcoming from BFI Palgrave.
G. W. Pabst’s Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929) is an adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, but in many places a very loose one. Those German plays are about thirty years older than the film, a Weimar-era classic that marries traces of Expressionism with the late-1920s sobriety of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement. Pandora’s Box was filmed in Berlin, or at least in a former zeppelin hangar in Staaken, and its American star Louise Brooks identitfied its depiction of divergent sexualities and the sex trade with the city’s glamorous, permissive nightlife. Her evocative description of the city during the shoot, when she was staying at the famous Eden Hotel, begins: “Sex was the business of the town …”
“At the Eden Hotel, where I lived in Berlin, the café bar was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the street outside. On the corner stood the girls in boots, advertising flagellation. Actors’ agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian Quarter. Race-track touts at the Hoppegarten arranged orgies for groups of sportsmen. The nightclub, Eldorado, displayed an enticing line of homosexuals dressed as women. At the Maly, there was a choice of feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians. Collective lust roared unashamed at the theatre.”[i]
There is only one named location in the film, however, and it is in this place that the fictional narrative bumps into historical circumstance – so in this case, geography carries crucial meaning. The final act of Pandora’s Box the film, just like the final act of Wedekind’s play of the same name, takes place in London – in a slum district most likely in the east of the city. Jack the Ripper walks these streets, and our heroine Lulu, reduced to prostitution, encounters him with fatal consequences. This murder is her dramatic destiny, and to understand the film more fully, which was possibly the first cinema adaptation of the plays to feature London and the Ripper, we need to think about the British capital rather than the German one. To explore this topic I am going to examine three disappointing “misadventures” in London: the visits made by Frank Wedekind, Louise Brooks and the film itself.
Wedekind spent the years from 1887 to 1895 writing his Lulu plays: Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora. This period, which he spent largely in Paris and Munich, is covered by his published journals (Diary of an Erotic Life), which generally offer far more detail of his social and sexual activities than his working practices. Towards the end of the writing process, though, he went to London, in January 1895. His entry for 24 January gives an unprecedented level of detail about his work. In the British Museum, he says, “I find masses of material for my Divine Birth”[ii]. Divine Birth was his working title for the plays. The next day follows a more familiar trajectory for Wedekind, despite a relatively early night:
“After lunch I get on the Underground at Charing Cross and travel to the Tower, look around the museum, the most boring and tasteless I have ever seen, travel under the Thames via London Bridge and come back home through the underworld, dine at seven o’clock and take the omnibus to the London Pavilion. Apart from a couple of authentic English children, I find nothing new and very little that’s congenial. I spend some time in a bar amid a pack of frightful whores, and go to bed at twelve o’clock.”[iii]
We can really only speculate on what “masses of material” Wedekind found in the British Museum reading room, but it seems reasonable to assume that he read about Jack the Ripper, an unidentified murderer thought responsible for killing several female sex workers between 1888 and possibly 1891 in the Whitechapel area, who was to become a character in his play. The news of the Ripper’s killings was fairly recent, in fact they happened after Wedekind began writing his plays, but a trip to the Museum would have provided some more detail about the nature of his crimes – specifically I think the amount of material widely shared in newspapers such as letters giving a supposed insight into the killer’s psychology, and also the distinctive mutilation of the bodies, which led to his gruesome nickname. Most of the victims were disemboweled, with organs including hearts and uteruses removed from the scene.
If his description is correct, then Wedekind’s trip to London’s “underworld”, or red-light district, was probably further west than the Ripper’s patch. As so often in the journal Wedekind here mixes enthusiasm with disgust in his accounts of paying or seeking to pay for sex, and the comparison between his disdainful sex tourism and his rather jaded review of the Tower of London is almost funny. We could speculate on whether his encounter with sex workers in two districts, feeds into his depiction of Lulu’s clients – a strange mix of rich and poor men, designed to mirror the suitors she has had earlier in the plays. Jack the Ripper, her final client, is the mirror of Schön, and often played by the same actor.
Wedekind may also have read about prostitution in the city, including the Pall Mall Gazette’s sensational investigation into child prostitution in 1885, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, which controversially included a sting in which a mother was caught by the editor W. T. Stead agreeing to sell her own 13-year-old daughter for £5. Sex may have been the business of London but, as the second diary extract implies (“authentic English children”), Wedekind was no stranger to this particular sector. Child prostitution is a theme that reverberates through his journal and the plays both. Lulu, who was “rescued” from the café scene as a young girl by her patron Schön, is frequently described as not just sexy, but also childlike and closely resembling her own mother. There is a grotesque scene in the play Pandora’s Box, not in the film, where a group of investors in Jungfrauaktien, that is shares in a funicular railway running up the Jungfrau or more literally, virgin shares, stand by while one of their number is persuaded to offer her 12-year-old daughter to a group of older men. Schön’s patronage of Lulu and common-or-garden child prostitution are linked throughout the drama.
Did Wedekind use his “masses of material” in the finished play? We must remember that he was forced to edit and tone down the material in the Lulu plays to get them published and performed, but by naming his murderer as the Ripper, he introduces the idea of evisceration. There appears to be no explicit reference to Jack mutilating Lulu’s body in the play – unless you look for it. At the opening of the play’s final act, Lulu empties a basin of rainwater. Her death, when it comes, takes place just off-stage and when Jack re-enters the room he is carrying the basin, ostensibly to wash his hands. The first implication being that it was a bloody murder and the second that he has removed something from the scene. Edward Bond’s 1980 English translation chooses to make this explicit. Lulu cries: “He’s slitting me up!” and then Jack emerges with a newspaper parcel, saying: “When I am dead and my collection is put up for auction, the London Medical Society will pay three hundred pounds for the prodigy I have conquered tonight.”[iv]
There is no such hand-washing or parcel-carrying in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box. Brooks was dismayed by this, saying: “the movie should have ended with the knife in the vagina”.[v] However, the basin makes an appearance at the outset of the film’s final act, and I think there is in fact a suggestion of the Ripper’s bloody deed, which we will discuss after pudding.
Thirty years later, Louise Brooks found herself just around the corner from the site of the London Pavilion, dancing in the Café de Paris. Brooks came to London in December 1924, where she worked as a dancer in the club on Coventry Street, and returned home in February 1925. At first glance, her trip sounds glamorous, especially if you read about it in Barry Paris’s biography, which states tantalisingly that “Louise Brooks was the first girl to dance the Charleston in London.”[vi] Sadly there is little evidence to back up this statement, beyond a few passing comments from Brooks and Paris’s unsubstantiated description of her “bewitching the crowds who jammed the club to watch her shimmy and crisscross knees into the wee hours. Nobody in England had seen anything like this before. She was a stunning success.”[vii] The question of whether Brooks did, or did not, introduce the Charleston to London is both fascinating and irrelevant to this paper. I looked into it, however, and the result of my research will be online at SilentLondon.co.uk shortly.
We know that Brooks arrived in Paris in the December, was abandoned by her travelling companion Barbara Bennett, and fished out of the lobby of Edouard VII Hotel by the American film and theatre producer Archie Selwyn (Tallulah Bankhead nicknamed this extravagant man “Criminal-at-Large” and called him a “fascinating rogue”[viii] in her autobiography), who brought her to London and got her a job at the Café de Paris, a relatively new club. According to a frustratingly date-phobic history of the club, Champagne and Chandeliers: the Story of the Café de Paris, the cabaret budget was tight, especially in the early years. Brooks, who had been performing on Broadway in George White’s Scandals, is not named among the notable performers there and she would have been a featured dancer in a lineup of small acts, rather than a headliner. So when she recalls “I was living beyond my means – who doesn’t at seventeen? – in a flat at 49A Pall Mall”[ix] we must remember that her means were rather slight, despite that swanky address, and of course also, that she was eighteen years old.
What was inside the flat on Pall Mall? A Christmas pudding (she told Close Up that she “lived on it for a week”[x], although it is an unlikely delicacy for an American teenager, but perhaps she purloined one from the Café de Paris kitchen), also the January 1925 issue of Photoplay magazine (probably brought with her from New York – it was published on 15 December 1924) and a maid called Nellie.
That issue of Photoplay had Betty Bronson on the cover. Brooks and Nellie went together to see her in Peter Pan (Herbert Brenon, 1925), which was released in London on 22 January 1925. Before going to the pictures, they read what Brooks called “the Photoplay fairytale story of Betty’s rise to fame”. Here is that story in full:
“Betty Bronson, comparatively unknown seventeen-year-old screen actress, is as anxious as any film fan for the release of ‘Peter Pan’. Upon her success in that picture depends her future. She believes that the fairies will be kind.”[xi]
It is indeed a fairytale – but I suspect that this story aroused something like jealousy in Brooks, who, at the end of that month, gave up on London and called in a favour from her own fairy godfather. Paris suggests that Brooks was melancholic in London, and that’s why she was susceptible to fairytales – I would contend that although she may have felt dismayed, she used that disappointment to her own advantage, and began to calculate how to engineer her own “fairytale success”.
According to Paris, after Brooks’s engagement at the Café de Paris had ended, the owner “charitably continued to pay her”[xii] a titbit that suggests that while she was popular with him, she was neither the toast of Piccadilly, nor very well-paid. Either way, that was clearly not sustainable. Her real fairy godfather was Otto Kahn, a German-born Wall Street financier, and host of risqué parties in New York where showgirls and rich businessmen mingled to their mutual advantage. Brooks spent her last quid on a cable to Kahn, who in turn cabled British-born director Edmund Goulding, who according to which source you believe, was in London either on the set of Gerald Cranston’s Lady or visiting his mother. Likewise, Goulding was also the host of many a sexy soiree, where Brooks was among the chosen few who entertained his rich and famous friends. Goulding paid her outstanding Pall Mall rent, and booked and paid for her ticket home. On her return to New York, Brooks’s connections landed her a job in the Ziegfeld Follies and in May that year, she began shooting her first film – Street of Forgotten Men, directed by Herbert Brenon.
Rather than seeking to undermine the story of Brooks’s time in London, as recounted by Paris, I use this anecdote to illustrate a pivotal moment in her career, the system of patronage and support open to Brooks, and her determination to use it in order to make a career on stage or screen. She wrote in relation to Pandora’s Box: “I knew two millionaire publishers, much like Schön in the film, who backed shows to keep themselves well supplied with Lulus.”[xiii] She probably knew more than two. She was fairly candid about her relationship with Kahn, which saw them trading sexual favours and investment tips, and her dealings with Goulding, as one of
“a hand-picked group of beautiful girls who were invited to parties given for great men in finance and government. Walter Wanger[xiv] and Eddie Goulding screened them. We had to be fairly well bred and of absolute integrity – never endangering the great men with threats of publicity or blackmail. At these parties we were not required, like common whores, to go to bed with any man who asked us, but if we did the profits were great. Money, jewels, mink coats, a film job – name it.”[xv]
As she told Kenneth Tynan in 1979, “I was always a kept woman.”[xvi]
Brooks’s time in the studio version of London was much happier than her weeks in Pall Mall. Despite Pabst’s cruelty in tearing and staining one of her favourite outfits for the streetwalking scenes (a rather mean psychological trick that worked beautifully), Brooks enjoyed shooting the last act of Pandora’s Box. She found Gustav Diessl, who played the Ripper, very attractive. On set, the band played the Charleston, and Brooks and Diessl kissed and petted under the table. “It was more like a Christmas party,” she told Richard Leacock. In fact, Brooks held a beer party for the cast and crew to celebrate her 22nd birthday on the London set.
One might think that Jack the Ripper would be old news by the time Pabst filmed Pandora’s Box, but Lustmord, or sexually motivated murders, filled newspapers and narratives in 1920s Germany. To take just one example, Fritz Haarmann, ‘The Butcher of Hanover’, had sexually assaulted, murdered and mutilated at least 24 boys and young men between 1918 and 1924. Jack the Ripper himself made an appearance in the anthology horror film Waxworks (Paul Leni, 1924). Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera[xvii], playing in Berlin as Pandora’s Box was filmed, won praise for its portrayal of antihero Mack the Knife and the seedy London underworld. Neue Sachlichkeit artists Otto Dix and George Grosz dwelt on the theme with works including ‘Lustmord’ (1922), which directly refers to the Ripper’s crime scenes, and ‘John the Lady Killer’ (1918), respectively.
Pabst’s version of Wedekind’s play incorporates authentically Victorian elements – the Ripper himself, plus the Salvation Army (whose mission involved saving sex workers) and the Christmas tree, with early 20th-century ideas, in keeping with the setting of the rest of the film. Freudian psychology plays a role, with the killer’s knife obsession reflecting the themes of the director’s Secrets of a Soul (1926) and his anguish echoing that of Ivor Novello’s mysterious tenant in Hitchcock’s twist on the Ripper myth, The Lodger (1927). Thus the London scenes are completely anachronistic but also reflect the artistic, intellectual and social milieu in which the film was made.
This is the most Expressionist part of the film too, as if an earlier cinematic mode suits the vintage material. In the Staaken version of London, Gunther Krampf’s cinematography[xviii] conjures the East End out of the barest spaces[xix], with extremely low and high-angled lights generating steep shadows and a criss-cross of constricting bars from the staircase, not to mention the evil, thick, swirling fog. Reports from those who worked with Krampf on later films recall him expertly manipulating fog and shadows.
In the finished film, while Lulu is being murdered, bloodlessly, with only a fallen hand to represent her passing, Schigolch, her father/pimp, retires to a local pub to eat a Christmas pudding. This is exactly as he promises to do in Wedekind’s play. The poet H.D., in a very bizarre interview with Pabst for Close Up magazine, quotes editor Kenneth Macpherson’s boast of his involvement in this pudding.
“Well, the dresser insisted that it was in a flat dish. I said a basin, and they brought a jelly mould … I drew one on the architect’s table. Pabst said ‘That is what I want. Round. Is it not, Herr Macpherson, round?’”[xx]
Pabst also appeared to listen to Macpherson on the subject of the proper garnish for this traditional British dish – a spray of holly. All very well, but the pudding in Pandora’s Box looks a little strange. It is basin-shaped, but the sphere in question is flatter, and more like a wash-basin than a pudding-basin, and that is not holly on top but mistletoe, the same poisonous berries that the Ripper holds aloft over Lulu’s head before he kills her. Schigolch, after sending his daughter or ward into the arms of a killer, plunges his spoon into this grotesque pudding, entirely unperturbed. Thus Schigolch, the true villain of this piece, shares a taste of the Ripper’s vicious crime.
If this is Pabst’s attempt to sublimate the Ripper’s modus operandi through symbolism, it may have also have been his attempt, like Wedekind before him, to pre-empt the censor. But by the time Pandora’s Box reached London, the censors had already gone to town. The print that was screened at a trade show in April 1930 (that’s more than a year after its Berlin premiere) was almost certainly the same version that had been shown in New York in December of 1929. There, as Mordaunt Hall noted in his review:
“In an introductory title the management sets forth that it has been prevented by the censors from showing the film in its entirety, and it also apologizes for what it termed ‘an added saccharine ending’.”[xxi]
The cut-down version of the film excises the lesbian character Countess Geschwitz, and removes other uncontroversial incidental business such as Siegfried Arno’s comedy routine backstage at the revue. It also deletes the very reason for Lulu and co to wash up in London – Jack the Ripper himself. In this version, there is no murder and Lulu and Alwa are inspired to make a fresh start instead after listening to the Salvation Army band.
London reviewers were either aghast at politely dismissive of Pandora’s Box, depending on whether they had prior expectations or had indeed seen the full version in Berlin. It seems the apologetic intertitle did not follow it across the Atlantic. In Close Up, Robert Herring raged:
“A brilliant idea – Pandora’s Box with the lid off! Yes, in England. You would have thought the censor would have kept the lid firmly on Pandora’s box. But he went one better. He took the lid off, let everything out and then showed us the film to let us see there was nothing in it. Result, everyone thinks it a duller film than the scenario made it and the trade papers were unable to recommend it … Pandora’s Box as it will be seen in England gives no idea of the film it was when Pabst finished it. Pabst’s gift is the gift of wholeness, completeness, actual and psychological. Alter it, upset one vibration, you have ruined a piece of fine work.”[xxii]
Herring made similar, but less passionate comments in the Manchester Guardian both before and after the trade show, condemning the cuts, although also describing the scenario as “stupid” and Brooks as “wooden”.
Other reviewers had little idea what they were missing. Kine Weekly summarised: “the picture can hardly be expected to appeal to the average audience”.[xxiii] The Bioscope called it: “The misadventures of a flirt and the men with whom she comes in contact. The picture starts fairly well, but tails out towards the end.”[xxiv] Both those reviews were printed with the release date not fixed, and the film had a second, similarly fruitless, trade show in May. The film is not featured once in Film Weekly or Picturegoer of 1930, and although Brooks can be seen advertising Lux Toilet Soap in the national newspapers and the Daily Mail is more than happy to use her image on the slightest provocation, there is just one more mention of Pandora’s Box in the press that year.
Not only had the cuts proved near-fatal to the film, but at this point, London’s major cinemas had installed electric speaker systems and the city’s cineamgoers had largely succumbed to the talkie revolution, so the appeal of Pandora’s Box was limited further because it was a silent. Herring mentions a suggestion that the film was to be synchronised – “in order to get away with”[xxv] the cuts, but happily nothing came of that. Further, if Pabst and Brooks appealed to British cinemagoers, those desires were catered for elsewhere. They could see Brooks in The Canary Murder Case (Malcolm St. Clair, Frank Tuttle, 1929), albeit with the voice of Margaret Livingston. If they wanted to see a Pabst film, The White Hell of Pitz-Palu (G. W. Pabst, Arnold Fanck, 1929) was proving very popular – it was even screened with a live narration at the Rialto, and its storyline was made into a short story on the pages of Film Weekly.
If audiences wanted “A Grim German Film”[xxvi] about a beautiful young woman who enthrals and destroys men, then by all means they could watch one. Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), a talkie and in English too, was showing at the massive Regal in Marble Arch, just over a mile away from the considerably smaller venue where Pandora’s Box was finally granted a run.
In the Observer, in August 1930, C. A. Lejeune notes that Pandora’s Box is playing at the Gaiety on Tottenham Court Road, a cinema she seemingly is not familiar with. She describes the film, really rather beautifully, but fairly, as a “piece of work nervous and intelligent in conception and photographically emotional, but presented, at least to the British public, in a chaotic form which reduces it from an entertainment to a study.”[xxvii] Pandora’s Box was shown in a double-bill with The Age of Seventeen (George Asagaroff, 1929). Lejeune found merit in both films (“a programme to consider”[xxviii]), but while Film Weekly had previously felt unable to recommend The Age of Seventeen (“I doubt if you will like this German film”[xxix]) their review makes clear why it was selected to partner Pandora’s Box – referring to “morbid Teutonic psychology” and a love triangle involving a young woman and a father and son.
The Gaiety Picture Palace was one of Britain’s first cinemas, having opened on 4 December 1909, at the southern end of the road, very near to the current offices of the British Film Institute. It was a small venue and in 1916, the police had been alerted to its popularity with gay men taking advantage of the darkness in the auditorium to have sex. The Metropolitan police sent representatives from the National Union of Women Workers to survey it and other cinemas with “doubtful reputations”.[xxx]
By 1930, it was an oddity, one of the few venues in London still exclusively showing silent films – though without an orchestra pit to support the bigger releases. It was remodelled in 1933 to reopen as a newsreel cinema, on which occasion, Ralph Bond wrote a little eulogy of the Gaiety for Close Up, describing the venue’s creaky piano, dusty seats, and frequently snapping film. In this cinema, he wrote, “black-hatted intellectuals would rub shoulders with the denizens of Tottenham Court Road’s back streets, admiring the genius of Pabst”[xxxi].
It’s a shame that Pandora’s Box never got a fair screening in a location so important to its narrative. As late as 1968 the NFT was showing a print that promised to be almost complete but really wasn’t – it was a partially corrected version of the French release of the film, Loulou, which had likewise been heavily censored. However, there is something grimly appropriate about its run at the Gaiety, facing a mixed, if select, crowd of cinephiles and pleasure-seekers. Just like Jack the Ripper emerging from Gunther Krampf’s Expressionist fog, Pandora’s Box ventured to London as an anachronism, out of place and out of time. Equally today, when we celebrate the uncanny modernity of this late-silent classic, we do well to remember its roots in the grotty history of Victorian London.
[i] Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood: Expanded Edition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1982), p.97
[ii] Wedekind, Frank, Diary of an Erotic Life, Edited by Gerhard Hay, translated by W. E Yuill (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell 1990), p. 234
[iii] Ibid., p. 235
[iv] Frank Wedekind, Plays: One, translated and introduced by Edward Bond and Elisabeth Bond-Pablé (London: Methuen second edition 1993), pp. 208-209
[v] Kenneth Tynan, ‘The girl in the black helmet’, The New Yorker, 11 June 1979, p. 57
[vi] Barry Paris, Louise Brooks: a Biography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 77
[vii] Ibid., p. 78
[viii] Tallulah Bankhead, Tallulah: My Autobiography, (Jackson: University of Mississippi: 2004, originally published 1952), p. 161
[ix] Letter to William K. Everson, quoted in Paris, p. 78
[x] H. D., ‘An appreciation’, Close-up, Vol IV No3, March 1929, p. 57
[xi] ‘Two Peter Pans Bid for Film Fame’, Photoplay, January 1925, p. 35
[xii] Paris, ibid., p. 78 He also misnames the club’s owner Major Robin Humphreys as Captain Lyle Humphreys.
[xiii] Brooks, p. 97
[xiv] One of Brooks’s lovers, who also who arranged her Paramount audition.
[xv] Louise Brooks, letter to Kevin Brownlow, 27 April 1967, quoted in Paris, p. 72
[xvi] Kenneth Tynan, ‘The girl in the black helmet’, The New Yorker, 11 June 1979, p. 65
[xvii] Filmed by Pabst in 1931.
[xviii] Krampf had previously photographed some typically Expressionist films such as The Hands of Orlac (Robert Wiene, 1924) and The Student of Prague (Henrik Galenn, 1926) but not as has often been cited, Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1921) http://www.filmportal.de/person/guenther-krampf_ba9046b3a72a44db8628bda224d9a990
[xix] See Amy Sargeant, ‘Night and fog and benighted ladies’, Adaptation, Vol. 3 Issue 1, 2010
[xx] H. D., ibid., p. 57
[xxi] Mordaunt Hall, ‘The Screen’, New York Times, 2 December 1929 http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9E06E2D61739E43ABC4A53DFB4678382639EDE If you want to know how that apologetic title got there, well you have to read my book – BFI/Palgrave, forthcoming.
[xxii] Robert Herring, ‘For adolescents only’, Close Up, May 1930, pp.23-24
[xxiii] ‘Pandora’s Box, Kine Weekly, 17 April, 1930
[xxiv] ‘Pandora’s Box’, The Bioscope, v83 n1228 16 Apr 1930, pp. 34
[xxv] Herring, ibid., p. 24
[xxvi] A., A. “A Grim German Film.” Daily Telegraph, 4 Aug. 1930, p. 4.
[xxvii] C. A. Lejeune, ‘The poor man’s holiday’, The Observer, 24 August 1930, p. 6
[xxix] ‘A bandit as you like him’, Film Weekly, 14 June 1930, p. 24
[xxx] Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press 2005), p. 58
[xxxi] R. Bond, ‘The last of the silents’, Close Up, March 1933, p.78
- With thanks to the British Silent Film Festival, Lawrence Napper, Bryony Dixon, Martin Koerber, Thomas Gladysz, Fern Riddell, Chris O’Rourke’s London’s Silent Cinemas project and De Montfort University and University of Stirling’s AHRC-funded project investigating British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound, 1927-1933.
- My book on Pandora’s Box is forthcoming from BFI Palgrave as part of its Film Classics series.
- You may also be interested in a piece I wrote about Louise Brooks and Hollywood for Little White Lies.