Thursday, September 02, 2010


Louise Brooks is remembered today mostly for this much-admired silent film from Germany, and though it is a well-made film, it remains of interest largely due to Brooks' mesmerizing performance. She is Lulu, a vivacious young woman whom we first see kept in a fancy apartment by her lover, Schön (Fritz Kortner). An older man named Schigolch, a figure from her past, visits her just before Schön comes to tell her that he's getting married; her flippant reply is, "You'll have to kill me to get rid of me." Schön's son Alwa (Francis Lederer) hires her for a musical revue he's producing, and she makes a scene backstage, refusing to go on when Schön arrives with his fiancée. Schön tries to console Lola and ends up making out with her in her dressing room. His son and fiancée discover them, and Schön winds up marrying Lola. On their wedding night, realizing that he will always be jealous, he gives her a gun and tells her to kill herself, but in an ambiguously filmed scene, she kills him, apparently by accident. She goes on trial and is found guilty, but manages to escape the courtroom. Alwa has become obsessed with her and, with the help of an old friend, the Countess Geschwitz, the two run off together; he becomes a gambler, losing lots of money, and she is threatened with blackmail by an old acquaintance who recognizes her. In the end, with Lulu, Alwa, and Schigolch in desperate straits, she turns to prostitution and, on what seems to be Christmas Eve, she picks up a john who turns out to be Jack the Ripper.

The melodramatic plot, with its outrageous twists and turns, is based on two famous plays by Frank Wedekind (who also wrote the play on which the recent Broadway hit "Spring Awakening" was based), and the direction by Georg W. Pabst, keeps lots of details offscreen or deliberately vague. Lulu is clearly a woman who, in the first half, knows how to get what she wants, but most of what develops is about her is ambiguous: Was she a prostitute from the beginning, or just a gold-digger? What exactly is Schigolch's relationship to Lola? He seems to have been a mentor or manager for her when she was a dancer, but he might also be a pimp--later, she says he's her father, though that may be a lie. Did she kill Schön on purpose? Is the Countess Geschwitz one of Lulu's lovers? (Clearly the Countess, who dresses in stereotypically mannish clothes, is hot for Lulu, and the two have a remarkably intimate dancing scene.)

Oddly, Jack the Ripper (not named specifically in the movie, though the credits give his name as Jack), who is only in the film for the last 15 minutes, is one of the most interesting and charismatic characters in the film. Played by the handsome Gustav Diessl (at right), he is troubled, even tortured, by his obsession to kill, but for a moment, it seems as if he will make a real connection with Lola; on the stairs outside her apartment, he throws away his knife, and inside, he dangles mistletoe (which he got from the Salvation Army) over her head before kissing her. Unfortunately, the allure of a kitchen knife on a nearby table is too strong for him. It is interesting that both of the murders in the film are shot obliquely--so much of the movie's appeal is in its ambiguity. Lederer, Korner, and Diessl are all excellent, but Brooks wipes everyone else off the screen: she is erotic, playful, mysterious, full of life, drop-dead beautiful, and feels quite modern. Certainly her appearance in this film, with her bob cut and bangs, has become iconic, and must have influenced Liza Minnelli's look as a similar, though less rawly manipulative, figure of Weimer Germany in CABARET. One of the last great films of the silent era. [DVD]

1 comment:

Steve said...

I've been castigated by silents fans in other online movie groups for referring to the "Louise Brooks bob" when it was Colleen Moore who apparently popularized it. Moore isn't as well-known today as Brooks, except possibly among doll collectors; she wasn't as infamously outspoken, and many of her films are either lost (the most sought-after of the lot being Flaming Youth) or invisible, not being available on DVD.

Danny Peary has referred to the character of the Countess as the screen's first sympathetic lesbian. For my money, she may be the most sympathetic person in the entire film.