Few more extraordinary Hollywood stories exist than that of Louise Brooks. The helmet-haired dancer from Wichita shot to stardom at age 20 with her erotically charged turn in the German silent epic “Pandora’s Box.” Criterion Collection’s double-disc set honors the film but also mines Brooks’ life and legacy and, as a side dish, that of director G.W. Pabst. Viewers will find themselves as transfixed as 1920s auds discovering the flapper queen.
In her Jazz Age heyday, Brooks defied Hollywood studios, courted censorship with sexual frankness, and loved and left a phalanx of suitors including Charlie Chaplin and CBS founder William Paley. By the time talkies arrived to stay, however, she was blacklisted from Hollywood. After several lost decades wandering and drinking came a startling third act: She found fame as a writer, hitting the bestseller list with “Lulu in Hollywood,” a collection of autobiographical essays named after the siren she played in “Pandora’s Box.”
Cinephiles will feast on the film and the second disc of bonus features. The trove includes a 1998 Turner Classic Movies special, a rare 1971 interview, four soundtracks by different composers and a robust booklet with essays by Kenneth Tynan and J. Hoberman and some of Brooks’ writing.
Boosted by Criterion’s ace restoration, the pic transcends the limits of the silent era. As Lulu flits among gentleman callers, she embodies both pure innocence and unbridled lust. When fate has her meeting Jack the Ripper as a degraded and desperate prostitute, the tension and poignancy of their danse macabre is made gripping by Brooks’ lack of guile.
In the ’71 interview, Brooks explains her appeal: “When I acted, I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was doing. I was simply playing myself, which is the hardest thing in the world to do.”