I was recently teaching a course on the Roaring Twenties in the United States. To do this properly, I ended up watching a great many more silent films than I’d ever seen before. Along the way, I stumbled across two films from that era that had a great deal in common, including skirting the borderline between fantasy and reality. There two films are Flesh and the Devil (1926) and Pandora’s Box (1929).
Never heard of either of them? But I’ll bet you’ll recognize the name of the female lead in Flesh and the Devil: Greta Garbo. The female lead in Pandora’s Box is less well known today, but she does have a devoted fan following. Her name is Louise Brooks. Flesh and the Devil made the Swedish-born Garbo a star in Hollywood, while Brooks abandoned Hollywood for Germany to make Pandora’s Box (German title: Die Büchse der Pandora).
The femme fatale was a much beloved character type of the 1920s, not just in the movies, but in literature as well. Ideally, she was mysterious, seductive, promiscuous, and destructive. Garbo’s Felicitas and Brooks’s Lulu fit the ideal. Felicitas begins by seducing a young man, only to be caught by her husband. Lulu is an older man’s mistress who thinks nothing of seducing the man’s son. Naturally, men die for these women, although the women will torment them first.
There’s a whiff of the supernatural about both women. Felicitas’s death leads the two men fighting over her (this time) acting as if they’ve just been released from a spell they’ve been under. We are left to wonder if Felicitas was supernatural, a witch or demon. While Pandora’s Box up front lets us know we are dealing with mythological themes, as well as being a double entendre for Lulu’s femininity. Yet another legendary figure enters the story after Lulu has unleashed a great many evils, just like Pandora, although Lulu’s evils specifically affect those who lust after her.
Most of the silent films I had seen before preparing this course had featured actors being overly dramatic in gestures and facial expressions to compensate for their inability to convey their feelings directly by speaking. So it was a revelation to see how subtle Garbo was as Felicitas, able to convey a wide range of emotions with just her face, and an even wider range when we could see her body. In contrast, in Pandora’s Box, it’s not the range of emotions Louise Brooks conveys, as her ability to portray a woman who is seemingly innocent, but in reality far, far from it. Both women are mysteries: Garbo’s Felicitas lures you with hints of hidden emotions, while Brooks’s Lulu presents men with a facade too easily mistaken for her real personality.
Are the women just normal, albeit mysterious, seductive, and destructive? Or are they somehow supernatural? One can watch the films and interpret them either way. It’s easy for me, as a man, to see these films as men trying to interpret how women affect them, and realizing they don’t fully understand female sexuality and its effects on them. But one could view these films from a more feminine perspective as the difficulties society throws in the way of women who want to unleash their sexuality. Considering the fates of both Felicitas and Lulu, the movies do not offer a comforting moral for women.
Garbo would go on to hit after hit, easily making the transition to talkies, and being nominated for three Academy Awards in the 1930s. Brooks would make two more well-regarded films in Europe before returning to the United States, where she was never again able to secure a starring role in a major picture. Despite their quite different careers in the 1930s, neither would act in films after 1941. Garbo would become a famous recluse, dying in 1990, age 84. Brooks would be all but forgotten for decades, but be rediscovered and actually become a film critic-historian in her later years, dying in 1985, age 78.
If either of these films sound at all interesting, I’d suggest tackling each paired with another film by the same actress. If you watch Flesh and the Devil, see Garbo in a talkie, maybe the more lighthearted Ninotchka (1939). For Brooks, I’d recommend pairing Pandora’s Box with her other German film, Diary of a Lost Girl. Critics seem to think it a weaker film, but it gives Brooks a wider range of character and feeling than Pandora’s Box, and is thus to me a bit more satisfying.
I guess these silent movies had picked up something from the Symbolist movement, i.e. that women in their sensuality are potentially evil. I think of some of the paintings, women with snakes etc. Unfortunately, off the top of my head, I can’t give examples. I just remember seeing the paintings and thinking, Wow! Is that in put-down or praise of women. I’ve a feeling Freud might have had something to do with it.
Wouldn’t surprise me; certainly Freudian psychology was already well-known in European and educated American circles in the 1920s. (Freud had even visited the U.S. in 1909.) Oddly enough, it was reading Dashiell Hammett’s detective stories that made me realize how prevalent and odd was the 1920s idea of the femme fatale.