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Lulu: Sexuality and Cynicism on the Stage and Screen

Frank Wedekind's plays Erdgeist (1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904) set a new standard for dramatic representation and were influential in determining the form of contemporary productions as well as later Expressionist theater. Wedekind's innovative use of language, his themes of sexual expressivity and circus-like sensationalism, and above all his focus on the bourgeois framework of fin de siècle Germany work together in the plays to produce a complex, sometimes ambivalent commentary on Wilhelmine social reality. In his 1929 film adaptation of the Lulu plays, G.W. Pabst retains many aspects of Wedekind's portrayal but incorporates important modifications as well. Not only is the script a remarkable conflation of the two plays -- retaining the basic storyline while markedly altering the dramatic structure and build-up of the play -- but the film is silent. To compensate for the loss of language, Pabst utilizes a cinematic technique relying on contrastive and ambiguous montage, staging, and composition to produce a symbolic characterization of Weimar society. Most important in this respect is the figure of Lulu; her role, already ambiguous in Wedekind's drama, takes on a new significance in Pabst's film. Constructed by her relations to the men around her but also by the constraints of gender and class, Lulu is in the end negated as perfunctorily as she was formed. The film may lead to a "negation of the feminine"; it most certainly calls the constructs of "masculine" and "feminine" into question, as can be seen in the figure of the Gräfin Geschwitz and in the numerous references to gender-specific behavior and exchangeability throughout the film. Whether Lulu is, in fact, a femme fatale, a "New Woman," or something else entirely, she does mirror the contemporary question of gender construction and societal constraints. As evidenced in the final scene -- the ambivalence underlying not only Lulu's fate, but the character of her killer as well -- Pabst's conceptualization of Lulu is crucially different from that of Wedekind. Certainly the time difference between the drama and film plays a major part in explaining this contrast, but it may be possible, based on the film's self-reflexivity and Lulu's position as the ultimate actress, to seek a "filmic" justification as well.

When they first appeared in the 1890's, Wedekind's Lulu dramas caused considerable controversy, not only because of their overt portrayal of taboo sexual themes, but also because of more formal and artistic considerations. Wedekind was firmly opposed to certain tenets of the Naturalist school of drama; although he did seek to make his plays reflect the social milieu and its effect on the characters, he hoped to achieve this without sacrificing his aesthetic to a coarse or unfertile mundanity, which he saw as unnecessary. Also a source of contention was Wedekind's reluctance to embrace the emerging women's emancipation movement, since, he believed, it "sought to annihilate the specificity of female sexuality, which he linked to a primitive animal nature." [1] This emphasis on femininity as `animal' or even `tropical' pervades most of Wedekind's works, including the Lulu dramas: never characterized as a maternal figure, Lulu epitomizes the destructive side to the feminine nature, which for Wedekind became "devouring whenever its nurturing function had been perverted." [2] In representing the social spheres in his dramas, Wedekind often underlined the harmful role of class divisions, and attempted to overcome this on stage by blurring social hierarchies or bridging the gap between the classes. Elsaesser rightly points out the function of sexual freedom in this respect: by imbuing the lower as well as the upper levels of society with a wide-ranging sexual expressivity, Wedekind created a bridge between the lower class and the higher: "a non-repressive sexuality thus becomes the utopia where the lumpen-class and the aristocracy meet in mutual tolerance and indulgence." [3]

Wedekind's early plays had a profound influence on later dramatic techniques: both the Expressionistic playwrights and Brecht drew on his notions of performance and staging. Wedekind's writing, which Finney sees as an "unusual mixture of satiric, grotesque, and tragic elements," combined diverse and even conflicting modes of presentation, working to place the spectator in a rather uncomfortable and yet captivated position, thus "anticipating" the later Expressionists. [4] An actor himself, Wedekind was well-acquainted with the difficulties of presenting his dramas on stage. In particular, his use of bodily gestures and an emphasis on physical presence were to become vital elements of later theatrical practices, particularly Brecht, as Kuhns explains:

 Clearly, Wedekind's physical technique on stage specifically anticipates later Brechtian performance principles such as the "Gestus" (by means of which the Brechtian actor maintains a critical distance from and comments on what his character says and does). [5]

So too was Wedekind's use of language both innovative and prescient; Finney calls the dialogue in the Lulu plays "unnatural, stylized, at times even absurd," [6] -- many of Wedekind's contemporaries agreed and found fault with precisely this aspect of the dramas. When presenting the plays on stage, Wedekind himself, as well as other actors, had a difficult time combining the highly stylized language of the dialogue with the bodily gestures and expressive movements called for by the plot. Kuhns explains that Wedekind eventually perfected a style of acting that would accomplish both goals, but he emphasizes how Wedekind was forced to "struggle with his own body in its search for a physical grammar of expression that would complement, instead of compromise, his unique style of vocal delivery." [7]

Weimar Germany was certainly very different from Wedekind's world in 1904, but remarkably, when G.W. Pabst filmed his Büchse der Pandora in 1929, many of the same themes and emphases could be problematized in a new medium without needing major renovation. Pabst's script is a conflation of the two plays -- which, incidentally, had been common practice for theatrical productions of the dramas, after even Wedekind himself had compiled a "Bühnenbearbeitung" encompassing both plays -- and it does leave out much of the opening acts of Wedekind's Erdgeist. In particular, while Wedekind's drama shows Lulu in a series of encounters with men, marrying and destroying first Dr. Goll, then the painter Schwarz, and finally Schön, Pabst's film begins in Act Three, with Schön already poised on the brink of disaster. The film tells us very little about Lulu's background; in the drama we learn of her encounter as a young child selling flowers (and herself) to Schön, while in the film only Schigolch can provide any clues as to Lulu's past, saying that she has "made a lot of progress" and that it had been "a long time" since they last met. [8] Other minor character changes have been made: the reporter is missing, as is the suitor Escerny, and Rodrigo's role is restricted to a few scenes of only peripheral importance. Perhaps most interesting is the complete omission of the student Hugenberg. While in the play he sacrifices his social standing to aid Lulu and attempts to defend her in court, in Pabst's film this role is assumed by Gräfin Geschwitz. Geschwitz even speaks Hugenberg's defiant lines to the judge, recalling a part of Lulu's past of which the audience cannot be aware: "Woher wollen Sie wissen, was aus Ihnen geworden wäre, wenn Sie sich als zehnjähriges Kind die Nächte barfuß hätte in den Cafés herumtreiben müssen?!" [9] Geschwitz's role in the film is problematic: on the one hand, she does perform acts of self-sacrifice -- Wedekind himself wrote that she could be considered "die tragische Hauptfigur dieses Stückes" because of her "übermenschlich[e] Selbstaufopferung" [10] -- but she also is shown to be jealous, cold, and ineffectual. Ultimately, her fate is not to share death with Lulu, but to be abandoned, left behind in the police raid on the gambling ship.

A significant variant between drama and film is the omission of the Prologue to the first play, Erdgeist. In Wedekind's version, the Animal Tamer opens the scene, speaking to the audience as if they were at a circus, and shows Lulu off as a rare animal, a "snake" whose function, he claims, is to bring about inevitable catastrophe:

 Sie ward geschaffen, Unheil anzustiften
Zu locken, zu verführen, zu vergiften --
Zu morden, ohne daß es einer spürt.

In Pabst's film, however, there is no prologue; the audience is not addressed, Lulu needs no introduction. Louise Brooks, who played Lulu in the film, noted that Pabst himself, outside of the boundary of the screen's story, understood himself to be the Tierbändiger, the director who tamed the animals in order to avoid chaotic clashes: "The finest job of casting that G.W. Pabst ever did was casting himself as the director, the Animal Trainer, of his film adaptation of Wedekind's `tragedy of monsters.'" [12] Most significantly, though, the figure of Lulu in Pabst's film is not portrayed as exclusively animal, predestined to her role. This becomes significant for Pabst's characterization of Lulu, which, we shall see, differs slightly from Wedekind's conceptualization.

The adaptation of a stage drama to the medium of film naturally requires modifications and technical changes, and Pandora's Box is no exception. Even some variations in plot can be ascribed to the change in medium: in Pabst's film, the structure of Wedekind's drama is adjusted to a more filmic style, suited to the needs of the Weimar cinema. Instead of a series of conflicts for Lulu, the steady progression of one marriage after the other, Pabst's audience is presented with only one husband, who thus functions as the paradigmatic example for all. The intensification through repetition is absent, but the depth and attention to detail are retained, even augmented. Not only do we see Schön at his own wedding reception -- a scene which is absent from the drama -- but we also see him in his office at work, at his son's theater revue, and we even see his original fiancée in her home, talking of the upcoming marriage. Schön is no longer a mere stepping-stone in Lulu's path, but a full-fledged figure with whom the audience can identify and even sympathize.

It must be noted that Pabst's film is silent. This is of great importance to his adaptation of Wedekind's plays, which relied, as we have seen, so strongly on the combination of bodily gesture with vocal delivery. For Pabst, the language is essentially lost -- there are titles in the film, but few of them carry weighty or significant dialogue; they serve primarily to advance the action on screen and to make certain visual moments more coherent for the spectator. Movement and gestures are of course retained, and camera movement can enhance the effect, but I would argue that for this film in particular, the `screen presence' of actors such as Fritz Kortner and Louise Brooks plays a crucial part in producing the overall effect and in communicating meaning to the audience. This screen presence differs from its stage counterpart, partly because of the different acting techniques used on stage and screen, but primarily as a result of the use of the camera to focus on bodily details, such as faces, eyes, and shoulders. On stage in the theater, there are no `facial close-ups,' but in Pabst's film, such images are a constant reminder, not only of the emotional magnetism of the actors, but of the medium of the film itself.

Die Büchse der Pandora is, in most senses of the term, a modern film. Certainly the cinematic techniques used are classical, almost Hollywood-like in their consistency. The narrative is linear, with two fairly large gaps (between the courtroom escape and the gambling boat scene, and then to the hovel in London) but no significant confusion. The continuity, both of narration and montage, is also conventional, with a few interesting deviations. Pabst was known for his supreme ability to create a `seamless' film, achieving continuity by cutting on motion to produce the illusion of an uninterrupted flow between shots. Pandora's Box is no exception: the cutting here is flawless -- at no point might a casual spectator become aware of the editing at all. Pabst employs a classical shot/reverse-shot technique on numerous occasions, linking the characters together in time and space and aiding in cohesion and comprehension. A number of glance/object cuts or eyeline matches, motivated by key figures or moments in the story, also help to direct the audience's attention to details. The courtroom scene is a prime example: as Lulu looks out into the crowd of assembled townspeople, the camera shifts to Alwa, sitting on a bench, apparently looking back at her. The camera then moves slowly along the row to take in Schigolch, Rodrigo, and Geschwitz, then returns to the view of Lulu in the witness stand, still looking out at the crowd.

On a few occasions in the film, however, the normalcy of these glance/glance cuts is undermined by their excessive placement: there are almost too many of them, and they are overaccentuated by the extreme close-ups which accompany them. Schön throws down his cigarette in his opening scene: the next shot shows him looking down at the ground, clearly transfixed by the thoughts in his mind -- but the viewer wonders what he might see there, besides an ordinary cigarette, that could be so fascinating, so captivating.

For the most part, this emphasis on glances and objects merely increases the tension and highlights the conflicts in the film. There are a few instances, though, where an actual sense of disorientation and confusion can occur. One case is in the conversation between Alwa and Schön, when Schön, having dismissed the thought of marrying Lulu, seemingly transfers her into the care of Alwa, and reminds his exiting son to "beware of that girl." At this point, the roles of the two men are reversed, and their physical positions in the camera's eye are transposed as well. Doane elaborates:

 In the first shot, Schön is on the left, Alwa on the right. The cut to the reverse shot (Alwa reacting) breaks the 180-degree rule and Alwa suddenly appears on the left, Schön on the right. This cut -- transgressive from the point of view of cinematic technique -- marks an exchange of places: the son replaces his father as Lulu's lover. But it does so at the expense of a clear orientation in space and a rupture of diegetic stability. [13]

Doane goes on to explore other instances of such ruptures, the most obvious being behind the scenes at the Revue, when Schön catches sight of Lulu preparing to go on stage. Although the two are clearly meant to see each other, their gazes, in terms of camera angle, do not match up, and the viewer is left puzzled, wondering where the two are standing as to create such an impossible angle. Doane reads even further into this mismatched gaze: "Their glances never meet, suggesting that his vision of and desire for her are unreal, slipping past any actual inter-subjective relation to the realm of the ethereal and the fantastic." [14]

Another technique which Pabst uses to create this ethereal realm which separates Lulu from the men around her is soft-focus and contrast in shades of lighting. These often work together to set Lulu apart as different, more feminine and alluring, and at the same time inaccessible -- the quintessential object of desire. When we first see her, for example, as she comes in the door and smiles at the meter-man, she is framed in the center of the screen, clad in a white gown, shining softly in an ever-so-slightly blurred focus. The meter-man, in contrast, wears darker clothes and stands in a shadowed corner, unable to break into Lulu's world. Even in scenes where Lulu shares the frame with others, she is set off by contrastive lighting: the prime example is the scene in which Geschwitz watches her confess to Alwa that he is "the only one who never wants anything from me." Here both Alwa and Lulu share the frame, viewed in profile, but while Alwa's face is brightly lit and easily discernible, Lulu's remains shadowed, distinguished only by a pencil-thin outline of sidelight. This contrast removes Lulu from the everyday space of the other characters, creating for her a realm of her own, one which is eroticized and at the same time removed from reach.

Contrasts also play an important role in determining the tension in the film. Not only the opposition between male and female (since Lulu is very nearly the only `feminine' character on screen), but also the distinction between the graceful, lithe body of the dancer Lulu and the hulking, methodical men surrounding her. Schön is the best example: we often see his broad back in the center of the frame, with Lulu flittering around beyond him, childlike, agile, and seductive. Rodrigo, too, is a stout figure: the difference between them is emphasized in the scene of Lulu swinging gracefully on his motionless outstretched arm. Indeed, Lulu is almost always in motion -- she flits from room to room as easily as from man to man; nothing seems to stop her or give her pause to think. Even in their hovel in London, where Alwa and Schigolch merely sit and stare at their misery, Lulu's nature compels her into motion, and she leaves the shack to find another man.

The use of close-ups in combination with seamless cuts has already been discussed, but Pabst's camera work is more varied and complex. His actors are known not for the appearance of their bodies on stage, but for the look of their faces on the screen. Several critics have commented on the importance of the "gaze" of the camera and of the audience for this film -- a gaze in which the cuts and close-ups on eyes play a major role. Doane describes the film as being "structured by an optics of eroticism based on a network of gazes which signal the momentous events of the scenario and an acting mode which relies heavily on the expressivity of the eyes as a readable text." [15] Facial close-ups recur throughout Pandora's Box, centering most frequently on the eyes: it is here that the loss of language is compensated for. The eyes serve, far more than any other component of the film, as indicators of the characters' emotions, thoughts, and reactions. Lulu's eyes are flirtatious, carefree, and yet seductive; she never appears worried or disturbed, and on the rare occasions when she seems puzzled, her confusion dissolves quickly into an innocent smile of understanding. Schön, the fatherly figure with his ever-present monocle, seems to squint at Lulu, sometimes reprimanding her, sometimes assessing her, always judgmental and concerned. Alwa's eyes are wide, naive, and easily terrified, while Geschwitz's only sign of emotion is shown through her jealous, narrow stares. Finally Jack the Ripper's "small unsteady eyes," explicitly described to the women of London, show him to be unstable and psychotic. His eyes immediately betray his intentions when they stray from Lulu to the table and he is overcome by the need to kill.

Louise Brooks and Fritz Körner also serve as vehicles of expressivity in Pabst's film. Körner, who was already well-established as an expressionist actor, brings elements of this style to his portrayal of Schön. The exaggerated body movements in his murder scene, his resigned methodical plodding amongst the guests at the wedding reception, and even his opening even of frustration, struggling to explain to Lulu that their affair must end -- all of these moments combine bodily gesture with detailed facial expression to produce a highly effective depth of character as well as a heightened tension. Louise Brooks, too, acts in a stylized manner vaguely reminiscent of the Expressionist style, but puts an emphasis on the flirtatious and destructive powers of her face and eyes. Even the minor characters such as Geschwitz and Jack share a stylized mode of acting. While calling to mind the synthesis which Wedekind achieved between vocal delivery and bodily gesture, the actors in Pabst's film create this synthesis without speech, using Pabst's camera work and editing to replace the words they have lost.

Wedekind's dramas did, to a certain extent, reflect the aesthetic and moral questions of his day and age, although his Lulu plays were seen not as realistic portrayals of the "baser" human drives, but as the expression of the author's own ideas about sexuality and pathology. Pabst's film seems to strike an interesting balance, reaching a consensus between a faithful reproduction of Wedekind's character conceptualizations and a more modern view of sexuality which has its parallels in the cultural ideology of Weimar Germany. At the time when Wedekind wrote his dramas, Wilhelmine Germany was only beginning to allow a freer expression of human sexuality: the women's movement was in its infancy, Magnus Hirschfeld and other sexologists were ridiculed in the press, and society on the whole was still fairly restrictive. Wedekind's agenda was, in part, a call for the relaxation of these constraints, an appeal to recognize human drives -- although the strongly destructive potential of female sexuality for Wedekind remains a problematic issue, and he was by no means calling for the emancipation of women under the terms of the day. Pabst's Weimar Germany, though, had a far greater tolerance for sexual deviation and freedom. Doane remarks that Weimar culture seemed to "test continually the limits of sexuality in relation to legal (or moral) jurisdiction ... Modernity to the Berlin of the mid-1920's entails a sexual expressivity outside the constraints of law or convention." [16] Even Louise Brooks, coming from Hollywood to the roaring nightlife of Berlin, was amazed by the unconventionality and sexual freedom she encountered there, a lasciviousness which she saw mirrored in the film itself, even if the Germans did not want to admit that. She writes that:

 Berlin ... rejected its reality when we made Pandora's Box and sex was the business of the town. At the Eden Hotel, where I lived in Berlin, the café bar was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the street outside. On the corner stood the girls in boots, advertising flagellation ... The nightclub Eldorado displayed an enticing line of homosexuals dressed as women. At the Maly, there was a choice of feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians ... [17]

Elsaesser, too, sees the setting of the film as a concrete reflection of Weimar Germany; in particular he maintains that the gambling boat, with its "demonstration of the mechanics of inflation" and the corresponding transformation of "the symbolic position of women within a patriarchal society," is thus a direct "fictional metaphor for the economic chaos of the Weimar Republic" [18] Doane carries the argument in a different direction: she sees Weimar Germany, and its mirror in Pabst's film, as imbued with a modern cynicism, a realization that the "evil" of human sexuality is inevitable and necessary -- in effect, then, the realization which Wedekind had already achieved and written into his drama. The cynicism of this era, Doane claims, does not attempt to unmask the earlier romanticized visions of sexuality; instead, it upholds them with the knowledge that these are in fact deceptions, but necessary ones. This cynicism seeks to "demonstrate that sexuality resides in the mask, the game, the deceptiveness of vision associated with the crossing of the boundaries of sexual identity." [19] Thus while Wedekind's dramas reflected the cynicism of the author but not necessarily of the Wilhelmine era, Pabst's film broadens its base to display the ideology of Weimar Germany and its less inhibited sexual expression.

Surprisingly, though, while reflecting this newfound freedom, the film maintains a critical social stance. In Wedekind, as we have seen, the view of Lulu and of women in general was by no means purely positive. Lulu may be all natural, the "earth-spirit" whose behavior cannot be restrained, but she does bring destruction upon her victims. In addition, Wedekind imparts Lulu with a certain masochism, consistent with his views on women's psychology, which resembled those of Freud. Lulu's comments at the opening of the stage version of Die Büchse der Pandora combine a fearful dream with an erotic impulse, an association which both foreshadows and leads to her inevitable destruction: she says to Alwa, "mir träumte ... ich sei einem Lustmörder unter die Hände geraten. Komm, gib mir einen Kuß!" [20] In addition, Wedekind's sharp ridicule of the women's emancipation movement is underlined even at the tragic end of the play, as Geschwitz decides that she will return to her mother, since "ich muß für Frauenrechte kämpfen." [21] Thereupon Lulu breaks into the room crying for help, pursued by her murderer Jack, and Geschwitz' fate is decided. For Pabst, both of these elements are missing. Geschwitz is a slightly vague figure, to be sure, but she is certainly not ridiculed in the manner of Wedekind. Lulu, too, is substantially different and appears to have neither the masochistic tendencies nor the conscious knowledge of her actions, which makes her fate in Pabst's film so much more appalling. In addition, Pabst retains and even strengthens the play's commentary on social milieu: Lulu is seen to be a product of socialization, controlled and (to use Finney's terminology) commodified by the men around her. The question of her "guilt" and especially her self-awareness, to which we shall return shortly, is far more equivocal in the film.

In truth, the audience is often left wondering whether Lulu is really aware of the consequences of her actions at all. Ambiguous as ever, Lulu is herself the supreme actress -- whether she is lying or telling the truth never really seems to matter. Finney calls Lulu "a consummate actress, consisting by her own admission of a series of roles," [22] and Pabst emphasizes her role-playing directly on screen. The audience sees Lulu making use of costumes; she is aware at least of the power of her body if not the consequences of her sexuality. She manipulates men (and Geschwitz) to achieve her personal goals and she assumes the roles of mistress, wife, widow, companion, and prostitute as easily as she changes her dress. As opposed to Wedekind's statement that Lulu is the natural principle, the "Erdgeist" of his title, it becomes clear in Pabst's film that Lulu is instead a construct. Molded, even created by society, she has become the symbol of timeless feminine sexuality and of male desire, and she reflects the dangers inherent to both. She is constantly shown as an image, a representation: we first see her as a painting in her Pierrot costume, then in countless mirror images with Schön. She is framed like a picture in the doorway with Rodrigo, as well as with Alwa in the scene discussed above. She is confined to paper in the drawings and sketches of Geschwitz, but even in this form she retains her power over men: Schön picks up the sketch in his office and is unable to continue with his work. Lulu dances before Schigolch, appears on stage at Alwa's Revue, and then as a photograph in the newspaper, by means of which Casti-Piani recognizes her. Lulu is in fact art. Kappelhoff calls her an icon and describes the effects as follows:

 Auch wenn die nackten Beine und der enganliegenden Rock Gegenteiliges suggerieren, sie ist ein Artefakt im doppelten Sinne des Wortes, ein Kunsterzeugnis und eine Täuschung. Das Kostüm mag im Muster drastisch auf das verborgene Geschlecht deuten; die strenge Codierung aber, der die Erscheinung unterworfen ist, verwandelt Lulu in eine hochaufgerichtete, schillernde Ikone. [23]

Lulu is constantly busy powdering herself, combing her hair, fixing her lipstick in a mirror. She is obsessed with her own appearance, and yet, Pabst shows her to be somewhat less concerned with her appearance than did Wedekind. In the stage drama, Geschwitz brings Lulu's Pierrot portrait to the hovel in London and hangs it up on the wall. Repulsed, Lulu shouts "Schafft mir das Bild aus den Augen!" -- she cannot bear to see herself in her former glory and compare that to her current miserable state. In Pabst's film, nothing of the sort occurs, and in fact we see the downtrodden Lulu as nonplussed as ever, calmly applying her lipstick in the shards of a mirror. So too, the filmic Lulu is less openly narcissistic from the beginning. Although we see on her wedding night how she stands admiring herself in the mirror, the corresponding scene in the stage drama includes the lines from Lulu claiming that "Als ich mich im Spiegel sah, hätte ich ein Mann sein wollen ... mein Mann!" [24] Pabst's Lulu says nothing; in fact, Pabst displaces Lulu's desire for herself onto Schön, her real husband, who at that very moment appears behind her to fill her place in the mirror. Doane remarks at this point that "when Schön looms up in the place of Lulu's lost image, the film suggests that she is there by virtue of the other -- a projection of male desire." [25] In addition, this scene reinforces the viewer's perception that, just as Pabst's Lulu is less conscious of her destructive capabilities, so too is she less affected by her own seductive body.

Lulu's role as an actress is just one of many references the drama -- and the film as well -- makes to the theater. Wedekind's drama has these elements of self-reflexivity interspersed throughout the story: Alwa, as the author and mouthpiece of the playwright, comments explicitly on the literary dimension of the play, on Lulu's adaptability for the stage, and other humorous citations. Pabst's film removes some of this referentiality, but creates a different metaphor in its portrayal of the behind-the-scenes preparations for Alwa's Revue. Placed at the climax of the first part of the film, and indeed the turning-point of the narration, this look into the confusion and creativity of dramatic performance is a clear allusion to the theater and, by extension, to the cinema as well. We do not see the Revue from the perspective of the audience, and very little of the stage production is actually apparent; instead, we are shown the machinations and substratum of the theatrical production, the `dirty-work' common to both stage and screen. As Doane writes, "this scene, in its concentration on voyeurism, exhibitionism, spectacle and image, is most suggestive of the function of the cinematic apparatus." [26] The idea of spectacle is significant here, for it is precisely in Lulu's passive role as the image, constructed by male desire, that she is poised to wreak utter destruction upon Schön, becoming the living and symbolic proof of his infidelity. When the dressing-room door is opened to reveal the couple's embrace, the tableau is prolonged, and the camera shows the astonished and pained gazes of Alwa and Schön's fiancée. Lulu has conquered the moment, and yet she is passive, held in a firm embrace by Schön. In the same way the audience views Lulu's progression not as a consequence of her own particular actions (and thus not a punishable guilt), but of the character, the very nature of the Lulu construct itself.

Similarly, the trial sequence presents another theatrical self-referential moment in the film. In addition to the prosecutor's "evidence" being the mere myth of Pandora and her box -- a fiction within the fiction of the film -- the prosecutor opens his scene by stating that he has shown the jury the events of the case "in a rapid series of pictures." This is clearly an allusion to the cinema, and indeed to the preceding images of the film which have told precisely the same story. It is also significant to note that Lulu, whose `role' at this point is to play the mourning widow, is once again passive. She merely sits in the witness stand, the object of the courtroom's gaze. Only when the verdict is passed and the fire alarm sounded does she move, and even then not of her own volition, but rather caught up in a crowd of her supporters, pushed along with no choice. Again, Lulu's ambiguous stance is underlined: is she guilty of escaping from the court? Or is she merely a victim of circumstance? The questions remain unanswered; while Wedekind seems to imply that Lulu knows what is happening at every moment, the expression on Louise Brooks' face in this scene is a mixture of puzzlement, naive curiosity, and childlike amusement.

Lulu is a child. In both drama and film, she is shown to be immature, young, and fascinated by simple pleasures: fashion magazines, clothes, muscular men, dancing, sex. This is a major part of her appeal: she is attractive because she seems innocent, direct, and guileless, while the very real danger she presents remains veiled. In Wedekind's drama, the deception is real, and Lulu appears to be aware of it; her comments about dreaming of being murdered, her deliberately evasive replies to questions put to her, and her ability to elude difficulties or manipulate her way out of them -- this all cements into the picture of a self-aware, yet still powerless, femme fatale. She even thinks and schemes of her own accord: when telling Schön that he must call off the engagement to his fiancée, Lulu actually dictates the letter and forces him to write it. In Pabst's film, however, this dimension is either lost or entirely masked. Lulu is still deceptive, but she herself is taken in. She does not seem to think or scheme or act with a will to destroy; in fact she seems surprised by the destruction that follows in her wake. At moments such as the murder of Schön and the escape from the courtroom, her eyes and the expression on her face take on a surprised, passively curious quality, like a child watching something it cannot quite comprehend. Lulu's smile on screen is ever present but empty, devoid of meaning or understanding.

Elsaesser and Doane both address the question of Lulu's guilt or victimization, and both reach at least a partial conclusion that this is a "false dichotomy." Is she victim or agent? Is her guilt or innocence ever even thematized? Such questions cannot be answered, since the data is lacking. Pabst presents Lulu as a very real but somehow shallow character: as viewers, we do not know what she is thinking or perceiving, and thus we cannot pass judgment on her. Clearly she lacks the conscious intent of a femme fatale -- while the men around her speak and act with an air of intentionality and self-importance, Lulu merely exists, at once subsumed beneath them and outside of their sphere. As we have seen, Pabst's cinematic technique places her outside of traditional space and time; Doane notes that Lulu's "temporality is of that of the moment -- the glance, the smile that signifies no lasting commitment." [27] She provokes the events of the story, but only as a result of her mere existence, the spectacle of her own (constructed) being; she is thus by no means a protagonist in the classical sense.

Elsaesser proposes a slightly different reading, concluding that Lulu's awful fate is a result of her having stepped out of `character,' in a sense: all along she exists to challenge "Oedipal and patriarchal logic by placing herself outside of it," but she succumbs to this very logic "the very instant she herself manifests sexual desire, as she clearly does for the Ripper." [28] I find this conclusion problematic, since it is obvious that Lulu has expressed sexual desire for Schön and Alwa as well. The issue at hand is rather one of personal gain: when Lulu reaches out to Jack she apparently knows that there is nothing more to be gained. The capitalist world of sexual economy which has constructed her is negated by her act of `free' and selfless love.

Throughout the film, capitalist and social hierarchies are established, only to be invalidated. Lulu is always shown as transgressive, moving both within these hierarchies and outside of their constraints -- in fact she does not even seem to recognize them. The opening scene illustrates her refusal to uphold class boundaries: the meter-man at first believes himself to be socially superior to the beggar (Schigolch) at the door, but he is soon proven wrong by Lulu, who joyously escorts the beggar into her bedroom. Then the meter-man, unstabilized by this assault on the societal order, grudgingly picks up his coins and leaves.

Discrepancies and ambiguities in the film can, as we have seen, lead to confusion on the part of the viewer, even from a purely cinematographic perspective. The pivotal murder of Schön, for instance, is not depicted with the clarity which might be expected, but is instead rather vague: as Schön and Lulu struggle, a moment of stillness ensues; We then see (if we are watching carefully!) a small puff of smoke, but the camera remains fixed on Schön's broad back, over which Lulu's empty face remains motionless and inexpressive. Only when Schön begins to sink slowly to the ground is the image resolved: Lulu sighs and then looks above her with a curious half-smile, evidently relieved to be out of danger. Even after this, when Schön makes his final attempt to reach out and kiss her, we see a full-body frontal shot of Schön with no wound, no blood. This was by no means a `mistake' in Pabst's continuity editing, but rather a deliberate technique to destabilize the audience, to call the very act of the murder into question.

Sexual ambiguities also play an important role in understanding Pabst's film. The Gräfin Geschwitz is perhaps the most powerful example. Even in Wedekind's play she is given a significant role. She speaks of her own character in terms of its inhuman quality: "ich bin nicht Mensch; mein Leib hat nichts gemeines mit Menschenleibern. Habe ich eine Menschenseele?" [29] Pabst's film emphasizes her `unmenschlich' state not only by showing Geschwitz' sterile clothing and rigid posture, but her absolute stoicism as well. Only in her eyes can we recognize her anger, her jealousy, her pain. She calls into question the very notion of what is feminine, what is masculine, what is human. Desiring Lulu as much as any man does, Geschwitz can be manipulated but in the end is not destroyed or killed, merely abandoned. Lulu takes advantage of Geschwitz as well and does not seem to share in a "sisterly" bond of any sort. Some critics have, in this context, remarked on Lulu's own "boyishness," the cut of her hair and her androgynous frame, but this seems to have little effect on her role as the ultimate woman, the unintentional femme fatale.

The outcome of Pabst's film is problematic. Whereas in Wedekind's plays the figure of Lulu shares the fate of her admirers, including Geschwitz and Alwa who are murdered at the end, Pabst modifies both the events of the closing sequence and the characters themselves. Geschwitz remains out of the picture, and Alwa lives -- he even seems to repent or find salvation in his recognition of Jack and his decision to follow the "Salvation" Army in the final scene. Many critics note that leaving Alwa alive negates all femininity in the film; this, Doane believes, seems to be the message of the film, that "femininity constitutes a danger which must be systematically eradicated." [30] Along similar lines, Kracauer's famous assessment places the film within the typical Weimar cinema agenda, which portrayed on the screen a reflection of the culture's own immaturity. Since Alwa becomes dependent upon Lulu and even goes so far as to lay his head on her lap, he represents the German "desire to return to the maternal womb, resignation, capitulation, and inferiority." [31] The film thus becomes not the tragedy of Lulu, but of Alwa, the reluctant survivor.

Importantly, though, the closure of the film is by no means cut-and-dried; the final scenes are as ambiguous as the opening ones. As Doane rightly notes, there is no moral to the story; the film "erects no counter-values to replace those which have been lost, and its closure, in this respect, is uncertain, evoking a curious hollowness or emptiness." [32] Moreover, the figure of Jack the Ripper has been changed from Wedekind's conceptualization. In Pabst's scenes, Jack is clearly psychotic, but he attempts to avoid his destiny: he resists Lulu's persistent advances, drops his knife on the stairwell, and fights with himself before succumbing to the irresistible temptation. In Wedekind, there is no indication of this -- Jack merely enters with Lulu, proceeds to attack her off-stage, and then kills Geschwitz as well. Finney adds that Wedekind's portrayal more appallingly depicts the commodification of Lulu at the hands of men. She cites as well a shocking first draft which was left out of the published drama:

 In the early manuscript version, Jack, the quintessential embodiment of male sexuality perverted, tucks a newspaper package into his breast pocket after murdering and dissecting Lulu and speculates about how much money the London Medical Club will pay for this "prodigy" -- the part of Lulu denoted, in vulgar parlance, by the "box" of the play's title. [33]

Pabst could clearly not have portrayed such a gruesome end to his film on screen in 1929, but neither would this ending have fit the character of Jack. Indeed, as Jack walks out of the hovel and is seen by Alwa, the two become equated. They exchange glances and share the frame; Alwa's resignation and recognition is expressed by his face in a short close-up. He and Jack become mirror-images, and both share in the recognition of Doane's "cynicism," the necessary evils of their age and their culture. Just as Pabst's Lulu assumes a Weimar sexuality, unburdened by the constraints of Wedekind's era, so too does Alwa learn that his newfound resignation and cynicism is necessary for survival in modern society.


(1)  Mary Ann Doane, "The Erotic Barter: Pandora's Box," The Films of G.W. Pabst: an Extraterritorial Cinema,ed. Eric Rentschler (New Brunswick : Rutgers University Press, 1990) 64. [return to text]
(2)  Thomas Elsaesser, "Lulu and the Meter Man," German Film and Literature: Adaptations and Transformations, ed. Eric Rentschler (New York: Methuen, 1986) 40. [return to text]
(3)  Elsaesser 41. [return to text]
(4)  Gail Finney, "Woman as Spectacle and Commodity: Wedekind's Lulu Plays,"Women in Modern Drama: Freud, Feminism, and European Theater at the Turn of the Century, ed. Gail Finney (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989) 87. [return to text]
(5)  David F. Kuhns, "Wedekind, the Actor: Aesthetics, Morality, and Monstrosity," Theatre Survey 31 (November 1990): 162. [return to text]
(6)  Finney 87. [return to text]
(7)  Kuhns 152. [return to text]
(8)  G.W. Pabst, Pandora's Box (Lulu): A Film by G. W. Pabst , trans. Christopher Holme (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971) 20. [return to text]
(9)  Frank Wedekind, Erdgeist. Die Büchse der Pandora. (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam, 1989) 122. [return to text]
(10)  Wedekind 96. [return to text]
(11)  Wedekind 9. [return to text]
(12)  Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982) 94. [return to text]
(13)  Doane 67. [return to text]
(14)  ibid. [return to text]
(15)  Doane 66. [return to text]
(16)  Doane 62. [return to text]
(17)  Brooks 97. [return to text]
(18)  Elsaesser 49. [return to text]
(19)  Doane 63. [return to text]
(20)  Wedekind 127. [return to text]
(21)  Wedekind 178. [return to text]
(22)  Finney 89. [return to text]
(23)  Hermann Kappelhoff, Der moblierte Mensch: G.W. Pabst und die Utopie der Sachlichkeit. (Berlin: Vorwerk 8 Verlag, 1994) 160. [return to text]
(24)  Wedekind 83. [return to text]
(25)  Doane 78. [return to text]
(26)  Doane 62. [return to text]
(27)  Doane 75. [return to text]
(28)  Elsaesser 45. [return to text]
(29)  Wedekind 174. [return to text]
(30)  Doane 72. [return to text]
(31)  summarized in Doane 74. [return to text]
(32)  Doane 64. [return to text]
(33)  Finney 99. [return to text]


Brooks, Louise. Lulu in Hollywood. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
Elsaesser, Thomas. "Lulu and the Meter Man," in: Eric Rentschler, ed: German Film and Literature: Adaptations and Transformations. New York: Methuen, 1986. 40-59.
Doane, Mary Ann. "The Erotic Barter: Pandora's Box," in: Eric Rentschler, ed: The Films of G.W. Pabst: an Extraterritorial Cinema. New Brunswick : Rutgers University Press, 1990. 62-79.
Doane, Mary Ann. Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1991.
Finney, Gail. "Woman as Spectacle and Commodity: Wedekind's Lulu Plays," in: Gail Finney:Women in Modern Drama: Freud, Feminism, and European Theater at the Turn of the Century. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989. 79-101.
Hibberd, J. L. "The Spirit of the Flesh: Wedekind's Lulu." The Modern Language Review 79 (April 1984): 336-355.
Höger, Alfons. Hetärismus und bürgerliche Gesellschaft im Frühwerk Frank Wedekinds. Copenhagen: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1981.
Irmer, Hans-Jochen. Der Theaterdichter Frank Wedekind: Werk und Wirkung. Berlin (Ost): Henschelverlag, 1975.
Kappelhoff, Hermann. Der moblierte Mensch: G.W. Pabst und die Utopie der Sachlichkeit. Berlin: Vorwerk 8 Verlag, 1994.
Kuhns, David F. "Wedekind, the Actor: Aesthetics, Morality, and Monstrosity." Theatre Survey 31 (November 1990): 144-164.
Pabst, G. W. Pandora's Box (Lulu): A Film by G. W. Pabst. Christopher Holme, trans. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.
Paris, Barry. Louise Brooks. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1989.
Wedekind, Frank. Erdgeist. Die Büchse der Pandora. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam, 1989.

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1995 for German 711 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Lulu: Sexuality and Cynicism on the Stage and Screen." Website Article. 16 December 1995. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/711FilmLulu.html>.