There is no argument that Louise Brooks was a galvanizing presence during her relatively brief movie career, and no one knew how better to capture her mercurial personality and timeless beauty than German director G.W. Pabst. Certainly the deluxe royal treatment given this silent classic in the double-disc 2006 Criterion Collection DVD package would portend a masterpiece, but due to a combination of factors, the 1929 film just misses its mark. Part of the challenge is the deliberate pacing and extensive 133-minute running time. Based on two plays by Frank Wedekind, "Erdgeist" and "Die Büchse der Pandora", the screenplay by Pabst, Joseph Fleisler and Ladislaus Vajda is refreshingly frank in its treatment of sexual ambiguity and promiscuity and provides intriguing insight into the social decadence of Weimar Germany. At the same time, the film keeps its epic length focused on the whims and travails of an amoral, rather unsympathetic showgirl/prostitute named Lulu, and the net effect can be somewhat enervating in spite of the potent combination of Pabst's creative vision and Brooks' charisma.
The plot begins with Lulu leading a comfortable life as the mistress of newspaper mogul Dr. Peter Schön. A vivacious and unapologetic flirt, she also tantalizes Schön's naïve son Alwa and the mannish Countess Geschwitz, but she becomes determined to marry Peter when he announces his engagement to the respectable daughter of a government official. As she readies to take the stage in a musical revue, she jealously throws a temper tantrum to prevent Peter from marrying, an overlong episode that exposes his lustful feelings for Lulu in front of his fiancée. Through this twist of fate, Lulu becomes socially prominent, but fate deals harshly with her as she is arrested for murder and sentenced to prison. She manages to escape to a gambling boat where shorn of her famous pageboy bob, she is blackmailed and then winds up walking the streets of London where she eventually meets her destiny.
As Lulu, the stunning Brooks is credible as a tart though not quite to the Shakespearean degree demanded by the story. She has moments of enigmatic power when Pabst's vision becomes palpable, but she never quite transcends the tawdry dimensions of the story. Her severe coquettish look has inspired subsequent generations of actresses from Liza Minnelli in "Cabaret" to Drew Barrymore in "Fever Pitch". The supporting cast is filled with typically excessive performances, in particular, Carl Goetz as the gargoyle-like pimp Schigolch and Alice Roberts as the smitten Countess. The expressionistic look of the film adds invaluably to the story's emotionalism thanks to Günther Krampf's striking cinematography and Andrej Andrejew and Gottlieb Hesch's modernist sets. The first disc has a satisfactory print with some overexposure evident at key moments.
There is an informative if rather academic commentary track by film scholars Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Anne Doane. You can listen to their comments or select among four different musical scores (although the orchestral accompaniment tends to be too overpowering). On the second disc are three solid documentaries - an hour-long 1998 TCM biography, "Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu", narrated by Shirley MacLaine; a new feature, "Shadow of My Father", where Pabst's son Michael discusses his father's idiosyncratic filmmaking techniques; and a fascinating 48-minute interview with a particularly tough-minded Brooks produced a year before her death in 1985 by filmmaker Richard Leacock and Susan Steinberg Woll. The best extra is the 98-page booklet which includes noted film writer Kenneth Tynan's 1979 New Yorker essay, "The Girl with the Black Helmet", which launched Brooks' renaissance.