Things I love about this film:
- Louise Brooks gives an extraordinary performance, as unaffected and natural as any I've ever seen. She's seductive, but has such a buoyant simplicity about her, and it's not the simplicity or innocence of a girl as in other screen stars who channel this as part of their allure, she's more like an elemental force of nature.
- The scene in act three when she's backstage with the newspaper publisher (Fritz Kortner) who has decided to end their affair and marry someone else is one example of this. She's refused to go onstage for them, and while arguing, turns her back to him and eventually lies down, the metallic strap of her outfit making a large thin Y on her otherwise bare back. We can just feel his desire to kiss the back of her neck, and after some tussling around, soon he is kissing her. It's at this moment that his son (Francis Lederer) and fiancée (Daisy D'Ora) walk in, and the look that Brooks gives them is just mind-blowing. I cannot imagine better acting; she's defiant and yet bemused, passionate and yet detached.
- Another great example is in act four, when the son tells her he can't live without her. Her eyes are captured so perfectly by Pabst, who adds a sparkle in their reflection which is almost demonic, and yet she has such tenderness as puts his head in her lap.
- On the surface it may seem to be a morality tale, but it's not with the way Pabst directed it, and this includes the wise casting of Brooks over Marlene Dietrich (who was apparently literally in Pabst's office when Brooks finally agreed to take the part). Lulu, Brooks's character, is never judged for pursuing pleasure. During her trial it's the prosecutor who likens her to Pandora, but the comparison is hollow, and we don't really believe it. The sexuality of the character is so natural it's presented as a sort of purity, which is a very rare thing in films of the period (or any period).
- By contrast, it's the male characters who are portrayed as evil, and it's because their pleasures are all tainted by exploitation, greed, or violence. There's the hypocrisy of Kortner's character who carries on with Brooks but tells his son, she's not the kind of girl one marries, and then later asks her to kill herself. Her first 'patron', an old man (Carl Goetz) who likely took advantage of her when she was a child, and who has no moral qualms about her prostituting herself late in the movie. The son, who starts off pure (so much so that Brooks comments "Alwa is my best friend, the only one who never wants anything from me. Or do you want nothing from me because you don't love me?"),but who we later see addicted to gambling, despondent, and not defending her. The trapeze artist (Krafft-Raschig) who blackmails her, and in one scene leans over her ominously with a giant alligator appearing over his head, mounted to the wall in the background. Another acquaintance who tries to sell her to a creepy Egyptian brothel owner, claiming that he's "looking out for her" because the authorities won't think of searching for her in Cairo. And then of course the final man she encounters, who initially is so stunned and touched by her kindness that he shows her real tenderness, though ultimately he can't control himself. It's all pretty damning, and more an indictment of the male of the species.
- Pabst has lots of great moments too, getting the most out of this story and telling it in a pretty creative way. The scene of the Kortner confronting Brooks on their wedding day when he finds her old patrons and his son playing around with her has the camera drifting ever so slightly in and out of focus, just as we can imagine him reeling from all of his emotions. The accidental shooting, with that beautiful work of art we see first on the left at a dramatic angle, and then in the background. And lastly, the handling of Brooks in that scene at the end, starting with her flashing that radiant smile with a sparkle in her eyes on the way up to her room, then later gazing at the candle with her chin on her hand and looking upward, and finally a remarkable restrained murder scene with just her hand falling away. It's brilliant, and Pabst continuing on with this to see the celebration of Christmas and people singing 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' really adds contrast and heightens pathos. The feeling conveyed is not one of well, she deserved it for her wantonness, it's sadness that such a pure creature has been so abused and snuffed out.
- The openness of the lesbian character (Alice Roberts) is refreshing, and in keeping with the lack of moral judgment present in the film. As an aside, from reading 'Lulu in Hollywood', my understanding is that Roberts refused to look at Brooks with the requisite lust, and Pabst had to shoot her looking at him and then cut that in. Regardless, Roberts and Pabst were breaking new ground here.
- Lastly, aside from the great acting, Brooks is simply iconic in this film. Her short bob and bangs look had considerable influence at the time, and according to TCM's Ben Mankiewicz, was also studied and leveraged by Liza Minelli for Cabaret (1972). She's also very stylish in her wedding dress, at the trial in widow's garb, as well as when her hair is not in bangs to disguise herself while on the run.
Great actress, great film.