No offense to the cast of ``Superman Returns," but you'd have your work cut out for you trying to find a more heroic star at a movie theater this weekend than Louise Brooks, who in 1929 showed up as Lulu, the free-spirited single woman in ``Pandora's Box," G.W. Pabst's vital and timeless silent tragedy. It wasn't merely that Brooks, with her short, dark, razor-sharp haircut, had screen presence. She had her own gravitational pull, which even today defies resistance. And, in so many ways, that's the force powering this movie, which runs at the Brattle today through Monday in a pristine new print.
Dangerously ahead of her time, Brooks was the Kelis of the silent era. Her milkshake brought all the boys to the yard. ``Pandora's Box" is her enduring legacy of seduction. Lulu is an aspiring showgirl in Berlin with no shortage of suitors. But their ardency is tempered by their propriety. Lulu's reputation perfumes her. Schon (Fritz Kortner), the engaged newspaper mogul who adores her, tells his composer son, Alwa (Franz Lederer), who lusts for Lulu, too, to be careful of women like her.
Brooks showed up in a string of unfulfilling studio comedies and went to Europe for a little self-reflection. There her beauty and charisma smote Pabst, a German with an uncanny sense of how to put across her sexiness as innocent human nature. The character isn't a crusader for freedom. She's simply free and is eventually and repeatedly punished for it. The movie's sense of tragedy comes from Pabst's obvious affection for his heroine and star, and his obligation to deliver a message: Sex is wonderful, death is stupid, and life is cruel.
He would never do anything as erotic, as initially giddy, and as gracefully sad. Neither, shockingly, would she. This was a once-in-a-lifetime pairing. Brooks's beguiling combination of self-perception and apparent indifference to being perceived, Pabst's easy ability to make that discrepancy rich with mystique: How did they pull it off? Garbo and Dietrich were often so heavy with awareness, o nlookers could make them seem remote. Brooks used attention photosynthetically, a nd men were attracted and intimidated.
The movie remains one of the most insightful depictions of the elemental incongruity between man's nature and woman's. She wants to be free. He can't help trying to lock her up or shut her down. It's a sexual physics that Pabst treats both as the whole story, with his theme right there on the surface, and a great societal allegory, one that simultaneously reaches far back in history and clearly sees the road ahead.
``Pandora's Box" feels today like a cautionary salvo and a chilling premonition about the mirthless future of women in the movies, from so-called women's pictures and nearly any Doris Day movie to Diane Keaton in ``Looking for Mr. Goodbar," Glenn Close in ``Fatal Attraction," and Emily Watson in ``Breaking the Waves." The entire movie career of Jane Fonda seems cosmically impossible without Brooks' s pioneering determination. In fact, Fonda, with her legendary lack of humor, might have been the wrong woman for the handoff. On the plus side, there has been a smattering of real beneficiaries. Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina put on a marvelous tribute to Brooks in 1963's ``Vivre sa vie," while, however unwittingly, the career gals in ``Sex and the City" dated in Brooks's name.
Brooks' s pleasure-seeking brightness in ``Pandora's Box" makes the movie's ultimate darkness so powerful. When her bulb goes out, so does the film 's. Pabst wasn't merely making a star. He was filming a candidate for cinematic sainthood.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.