Pandora’s Box (1929) Deconstructs the Femme Fatale And Chides Her Victims
By Alex Cranz
There are few characters as alluring and fascinating in classic cinema as the Femme Fatale. Their dark eyes and their curvy hips. The way they crawl into the hero’s skin. They way they give men something to fear and something to be aroused by and the way they make women envious but represent freedom and agency women often lack in real life. They’re the closest you get to heroines in film noir and when you look up women in your history books you’ll more often than not find the moniker ascribed to the most famous women.
In Abrahamic religions the very first woman ever is a femme fatale. She seduces Adam into taking a bite of fruit she’s plucked from the Tree of Knowledge, teaches him what sex is, and leads him and all of mankind into a terrible world of free will and mortality.
In Greek Mythology it is, again a femme fatale who is the first woman in the world. Pandora oozes sex and her beauty is only rivaled by goddesses like Aphrodite. Her first step into the mortal realm is met with awe by mankind who has existed as one gender for what seems like generations. And she carries a box that holds every possible evil thing in the world. She, and womankind, are but two things to man. They are sex and they are the custodians of evil.
Like Eve, the myth of Pandora and her box of evil is a theodicy rife with misogyny. Man is good. Then women comes and seduces man into destruction. You stop and consider it and the femme fatale herself and you realize, “Holy hell, the femme fatale is a majorly sexist stereotype that seeks to blame women while absolving their “victims” of all responsibility.”
But back in 1929 Georg Wilhelm Pabst noticed the inherent sexism of the archetype. Film had been assailed with story after story where a vampish woman in shockingly dark eye makeup would slink into the arms of the hero and seduce him into ruin. There were actresses like Theda Bara and Myrna Loy whose entire careers were based around playing femme fatales. Pabst took a pair of popular plays by Frank Wedekind and used them not to perpetuate the archetype but to point out how absolutely silly it is.
The film begins with Lulu, a woman so optimistic she’d make Leibniz do a double take, chatting with the meter man. Is she seducing him? Or is he being seduced? Does she flirt and coyly come onto him, or is he simply taken with a pretty woman who has zero problems talking to men? That’s left up to the viewer.
Soon there’s a knock at the door and the meter man is shoved out onto the street so Lulu can properly greet her new, older, male guest.
“What a tramp,” you might immediately think. She’s a high-priced call girl and here’s her shaggy older pimp come to collect what’s his.
There’s a second knock at the door. She hides her pimp and greets the lover that pays for her nice things and keeps her in a lavish apartment. He’s going to have to marry another woman and they’ll have to end their own affair or be the talk of the town.
Does Lulu then seduce him into continuing the affair? Or is he simply an avaricious man easily swayed by a pretty woman’s touch?
The lover grows jealous when Lulu becomes part of a popular music revue. He tries to keep her from going onstage and is caught in her arms by his fiance and his son. He’s then forced to marry her, but when he finds her in the bedroom with her pimp and the star/director of her musical revue he goes ballistic. The two men flee and leave Lulu to her new husband’s mercy. He draws a gun and begs her to kill herself so he doesn’t have to be plagues by her beauty and “treachery” any longer.
Instead he’s the one that winds up dead and Lulu winds up on trial for his murder. It is all going well until the prosecution reminds the court of Pandora and her box. As above he paints Pandora, and Lulu, as tempestuous women who draw men to their doom. She’s a siren on the rocks and should be put to death before more men are lured to their deaths by her naked sensuality.
If that sounds absolutely absurd then you and Pabst are in agreement. He doesn’t believe Lulu to be the evil nature of women personified. She’s a regular woman, maybe prettier than most, but not full of nefarious guile and a passion for destruction.
Pabst’s hunt to find the perfect Lulu eventually led him to two women, fellow German Marlene Dietrich, and Louise Brooks, a loud and almost brash showgirl born in Kansas. Behind the scenes Brooks was loud, obstinate, often hungry and had a knack for getting other people to pay her way. But she also had a vulnerability and innocence on-screen that the striking Dietrich could never quite possess.
When G.W. Pabst saw Brooks he knew he had his Lulu. Devoid of the make up worn by nearly every other woman of the silent film era Brooks is absolutely breathtaking. She’s modern cinema painted into a black and white portrait of a bygone era. It makes her electric. Watchable. There’s no vanity in the performance and it makes her all the more captivating.
We’ve all known that woman who is so kind, and likeable and pretty. She’s perfection while at the same time she’s the girl next door. You want to be her friend. Her confidante. That is Louise Brooks as Lulu. You want to sit down and let her talk to you and hope between the flirtatious curve of her smile and the gentle lilt of her laughter she’ll reveal all her secrets to you and you alone.
Yet when things turn serious–when Lulu sits there in the courthouse in her mourning dress and slowly removes her veil you still see that charming girl from Kansas, but you also see the femme fatale that stalks the heroes of every other film.
In that one moment she is the dichotomy of our culture’s perception of women realized.
In another actress’s hands Pabst’s vision would have faltered, but he cast Louise Brooks and in every scene she reminds us of why it is so easy to be seduced, and why it is so silly.
Lulu really doesn’t know any better. Her whole life she’s known that flirting and kindness can get her what she wants. She doesn’t do it to hurt others. She does it out of instinct. Some of the characters are aware of this. Particularly Schigolch, the pimp. Or is he a pimp? Maybe he’s her drunken father too. Maybe he’s been using his daughter to have an easier time of things since she was born. Whatever his true relation to her is he understands her completely. He does not blame her for the tragedies that follow her from scene to scene.
The only other person that seems to understand her is the Countess Geschwitz. When Pabst asked Alice Roberts to play the Countess he made it clear he wanted her to play it as a woman struck by love for Lulu. Roberts was against playing a lesbian. It was 1929 lesbians just weren’t shown on-screen, and certainly not in films from major filmmakers like Pabst. But Pabst insisted, so she put on the suits wardrobe laid out for her and she swaggered through her scenes bearing a strength quite uncommon in women on-screen at the time.
The Countess’s sexuality is never played for titillation, in fact it’s incredibly downplayed. Hinted at only in her passion, and in her ultimate fate towards the end of the film. It drives home Pabst’s theme, “See,” he seems to say, “even women can fall ‘prey’ to a femme fatale.” It is real and brazen equality that sees the Countess murder a man (and get caught) in order to protect Lulu.
By the end of the film only two of Lulu’s devoted remain. The man who might be her father, and the son-in-law that could be her lover. The three are living in a shack and slowly freezing to death and wallowing in absolute squalor and poverty. Desperate for a bit of cash Schigolch encourages Lulu to do what she does best, and seduce a man into giving her money.
Unfortunately the man she finds is Jack the Ripper. He’s on the prowl for a victim of his own and when they meet his passion for murder is tempered by Lulu’s heedless kindness. For her Jack will lay aside his knife just this once. Lulu is so delighted by his affections she agrees to sleep with free of charge–because that’s Lulu. She really isn’t the devastating femme fatale others would have you believe.
Unfortunately when she falls into Jack’s embrace it allows him to see a shiny knife on the table top. And the film ends with her dying in one almost lover’s arms as another one of her almost lovers walks the street cursing her and his own luck.
No one in the film learns the lesson, but the audience does: we are each responsible for our own actions. Seduction isn’t the enemy. It is our own self-control.