Define Frenzy: Queerness in G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box

The first in a series of weekly essays throughout June attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films.

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Define Frenzy: Queerness in G.W. Pabst's <i>Pandora's Box</i>

“Define Frenzy” is a series of weekly essays for Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen.


Donning an infamous black bob cut, Louise Brooks’ Lulu is chameleonic. She shape-shifts from one archetype to the next, clothed in anything from a white wedding dress to a black veil. She causes frenzied reactions from everyone. She appears on paper and ink drawings, in court rooms and in bedrooms, every one of her actions ambiguous in their motivations. Her relationships, sexual and romantic, balk at usual human logic. Though the men (and sometimes women) in her life are inclined to box her in and define her, Lulu is queer in the most modern sense of the word: She defies categorization, she rejects labels. She is queer—in a broad, fluid, somewhat esoteric sense.

Released in 1929 in the midst of the success of Weimar Germany’s film industry, Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s silent melodrama surveys the rise and fall of dancer, prostitute and seductress Lulu as she wreaks havoc around her, particularly spelling doom for the men in her life. The film, along with Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl (also 1929), would catapult the then unknown American actress Louise Brooks to stardom and solidify her as an icon of silent film. Its place within Weimar Cinema is almost part of the film itself: It is a portrait of decadence and downfall, of the other side of hedonism. While much of Weimar Cinema manifested itself via German Expressionism, like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1927) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Pabst made realist melodramas, known as “street films,” an approach that would inform Pandora’s Box.

We often understand “queer” rigidly, as pertaining to LGBTQ people, or even more conservatively, to gay people. But as queer studies explored and expanded upon ideas, many set forth by such writers as Michel Foucault, of what sexuality and identity mean, today that word has become more expansive, even ideologically inclined. So, Pandora’s Box does technically include an LGBTQ character, but her queerness is not limited to her attraction to/relationship with both men and women. Her queerness is her defiance of a culture and society inclined to see her as the Other. Hers is a body of transcendence.

The easiest exercise to perform while watching GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box is to attempt to deconstruct Brooks’s character, to analyze to what degree she is worthy of our sympathy, empathy, disdain and disgust. But such analyses rely on a kind of categorization that forces Lulu, and perhaps by extension Brooks, into double binds. She is the temptress sex worker serving Schigolch (Carl Goetz), implicitly “asking for trouble” by her very line of work. Later, she invokes empathy from Jack the Ripper, only to be murdered by him, both justifying, paradoxically, the prudish beliefs of the viewer in the most Hollywood-ish manner possible (despite this being a film from the Weimar Cinema) and engendering real sympathy from the audience at large. How can both be true?

She wears black silk in the court room, her face shaped perfectly by her coifed hair, and testifies like the Black Widow on the stand, tried for manslaughter in the death of Schön (Francis Lederer), her late one-day-old husband. Lulu plays the audience in multiple ways: In a scene where Lulu could so simply be reduced to easily defined archetypes, she eschews them one by one, sometimes subverting the very conventions that she is ostensibly intended to live within.

This includes her relationships, as her feelings towards monogamy seem to be more ambivalent. There is palpable chemistry between Lulu and Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), an eroticism that is only displayed but never exploited. Geschwitz is chic, not unlike Lulu herself, and their understanding of the illusory appeal of surfaces is undoubtedly a crucial aspect of their dynamic, one Pabst carefully illustrates, further articulating this idea of non-categorization. Geschwitz hands Lulu sketches for a dress—constructed identities on their own—and vies for an intimate connection with her friend, who grants Geschwitz this to some degree. Though one could read Lulu’s confirmation of Geschwitz’s advances as using the relationship to her advantage, the looks and glances the two give one another imply a mutual understanding of how they are to navigate their attraction. Even as Lulu is involved with other relationships (with men), she continues to resist the rigidity of normative frameworks that mean to box her in.

What Pandora’s Box ultimately does is deconstruct the archetypes that the people around Lulu, or watching Lulu, are inclined to say she is. She’s Femme Fatale, Black Widow, Madonna and Whore—but she’s also none of these things. There’s an explicit rejection of these ideas, or at the very least an attempt to reject them: The ways in which Lulu reacts to all of these suggestions and implications is often violent, if not physically, then verbally. Still, Lulu’s understanding of her own femininity, masculinity, androgyny and gender has been formed within the confines of patriarchal standards. It is not Woman who defines who she is, but rather Man who has come to define Woman.

In essence, Pandora’s Box is about the Other becoming the Subject, and the discordance in adjustment to that idea. As Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, “She is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other.” Given that so many narratives place female and/or queer characters as the Other, Pandora’s Box, then, is a kind of reclamation of that Other status, and of the power of it, within a pulpy, melodramatic context. The Other often lacks autonomy and agency, but because Lulu does have that power and agency, the world around her splits and shatters.

Against the odds and structures that try to claim Lulu, Pandora’s Box gives the definition of the Self (and female selfhood) to its female protagonist—not examining the consequences of that, but the fear of what could happen from the perspective of someone of a normative identity. That Lulu is often defined, by the other characters in the film and by audiences alike, as a kind of harbinger of doom is less a reality and more the manifestation of a fear that takes hold when so-called femme fatales are truly given an autonomy that they have rarely been granted before. It manifests in a kind of absurdity that sprawls on for more than two hours, a grueling test to see to what extent its audience will come to respect its protagonist, or at least fear her.

In every way, Lulu does not really care if you fear or respect her. Her development in relation to the men that try to define her is an imperative part of that evolution, which again suggests a kind of double bind: She can either be without men in her life and be discarded as unimportant, or live with them and be only defined in relation to them. As writer Shon Faye puts it, “Queer [as a slur] is about what you are told you are, whether you are abnormal or you simply do not recognize yourself in the narrativized normal that society tells you about.” Pandora’s Box is the cinematic articulation of what that means and what that looks like.

Lulu’s role to men, then, becomes multifaceted: Her identity is something to be defined and used but also to be othered. The prosecutor sending Lulu to prison declares dourly, “The Greek gods created a woman—Pandora. She was beautiful and charming and versed in the art of flattery. But the gods also gave her a box containing all the evils of the world. The heedless woman opened the box, and all evil was loosed upon us.” Here, Lulu is both used and abused. Her retribution? She escapes.

Lulu never explicitly defines herself as anything, verbally or otherwise, and though she constructs her identity aesthetically as feminine, she places no labels upon herself. In many ways, Lulu uses these labels as advantageously as possible, as a way to exploit the very patriarchal standards she must be defined by in the first place. At other times, she resists: She escapes from the trial in an effort to recontextulize her identity elsewhere; she works at a brothel, and is blackmailed. That Pabst’s film narratively takes a turn for the worse doesn’t mean he’s upholding the normative values that seem to have engendered Lulu’s resistance in the first place; it means he’s critiquing them. Not only are we supposed to sympathize with Lulu’s situation, but we’re supposed to understand: To consider Woman as something only in relation to Man is to spell doom.

Faye affirmed, “Queer is about the entire process of rejecting labeling itself. Queer is not an identity, it is riposte to identity.” Though Lulu looks back at herself in many mirrors, and furthermore, looks at images taken, and thus perceived/conceived by others, she does not identify herself or label herself using the language of the men that do. She opts out of that as much as she can.

French theorist Guy Hocquengh wrote on queerness in Screwball Asses saying, “Since we are not homosexuals in any elementary way, it is time to stop proudly shouting our shame. ‘You are homosexuals’ is what we should be shouting to all, even if we must become hysterical in the process.” Everyone wants to reduce Lulu to some iteration of “hysterical,” which is, to the norm, dangerous. It should be noted that “hysteria” was once a common diagnosis in women to explain the most basic of actual illnesses and maladies, such as depression, insomnia, and loss of food or sexual appetite. Lulu turns the tables on this notion.

Faye, again, succinctly defines what queer can be, which feels relevant to Lulu’s character: “Queer is about removing labels and replacing them with a question. It is a side eye and a challenge back to mainstream politics. It says, ‘I don’t know the answer, but why are you asking the question?’” To what degree Lulu, or Louise Brooks, would agree with this designation of being queer, one cannot be sure—but does that matter?

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