Did G.W. Pabst's German silent film classic Pandora's Box make actress Louise Brooks famous? Or did she create the movie's eternal fame?
Never before, and never since, has an actress been so perfectly defined by a single film. Here, frozen in time, is the consummate headstrong flapper of the 1920s. The film is set in the late 19th Century, but Louise presents the 1920s flapper in every way.
She - I mean both Louise and her character Lulu - is erotic and wayward. She is as innocent as a child in one way, but with super-charged sexuality emerging with every glance, and with every movement of her lithe limbs.
In Pandora's Box, Louise plays the doomed prostitute Lulu, whose sexual adventures carry her across Europe, from Germany to the London of Jack the Ripper.
The Pabst movie, made in 1929, was adapted from one of Germany's classic plays, by Frank Wederkind. The Wederkind play also inspired the opera Lulu, by Alban Berg. But it is the Pabst film which was destined to bring Wederkind's play - and Louise Brooks - to the world.
This film introduced a very 20th century character to the world's screen - a woman of great sexuality who is totally without sin. That horrified the 'moral' audiences of the time. Very likely, it still would.
Forget that this is a silent movie. This 114-minute film is so well crafted and so well edited that the absence of dialogue is almost unnoticeable - we adapt to the conventions of silent cinema within a couple of minutes.
This is partly because of Louise Brooks' subtle acting. There are no silent-cinema histrionics here. No chest-heaving and grimacing. The slightest turn of the mouth or attitude of a shoulder speaks volumes when Brooks is acting. One of her colleagues, and several critics, complained that Louise just wouldn't act when on the set. That was precisely what some colleagues said around the same time about the young Gary Cooper.
Louise Brooks serves director G. W. Pabst so well that it is hard to conceive how his film could have been made with any other actress. Pabst's second choice, if he couldn't have lured the Kansas-born actress to Germany, was Marlene Dietrich. But even the Marlene Dietrich of The Blue Angel fame could not have played this prostitute in such an affecting, sympathetic way, free of all artifice and guile.
Louise Brooks was not beautiful in a conventional sense, though she was certainly stunningly pretty. Her beauty was totally unconventional. Her tight black bobbed helmet of hair and slim body are as startlingly modern now as they were in the 1920s. It's her attitude, more than her beauty, which is on show. Every glance and gesture reveals an early feminist attitude which says "I am what I am - take it or leave it. My sexuality is to serve and please me, and if it pleases you too, that's good." That's Louise and Lulu. They're inseparable.
Without Louise Brooks, Pandora's Box would still have been a brilliant movie of the late silent-cinema period. But it would have been a movie for the film afficianados and students to seek out. It's her presence which has given the film its special status today. Lulu is Louise Brooks, and this one movie has given Louise a special place forever in the cinema pantheon.