Tag Archives: Frank Wedekind

Earth Spirit (1923): Asta Nielsen as Leopold Jessner’s Expressionist ‘man-eater’ Lulu

This blogpost is based on the introduction I gave to a screening of this film in the BFI Southbank season that I curated, In the Eyes of a Silent Star: The Films of Asta Nielsen. The season continues until 16 March.

This irresistibly grotesque German silent is an adaptation of a play that was hugely popular in Germany and around the world, in the early 20th century, and has been subsequently adapted many times, loosely or otherwise, for the screen. The play is Erdgeist/Earth Spirit, the first part of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu cycle, which silent film viewers may be more familiar with in the form of GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box of 1929, starring Louise Brooks. The later, iconic film has overshadowed this adaptation, which has been harder to see. And indeed, Brooks wrote rather scathingly about the film in Lulu in Hollywood: disparaging the film for its lack of lesbianism and incest (a questionable complaint for two reasons), and accusing Nielsen’s Lulu of performing “skippity-hops” and appearing to suffer from an attack of indigestion at the crucial moment. Nielsen’s Lulu was, she said, a “man-eater” who “devoured her sex victims”, whereas her own portrayal of the femme fatale was much more innocent…

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‘Pandora’s Box with the lid off!’: Lulu’s misadventures in London

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.

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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.

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