New York

“Louise Brooks and the ‘New Woman’ in Weimar Cinema”

International Center of Photography Museum (ICP)

It seems that the Bubikopf is experiencing a kind of Renaissance. The only English words that describe the oh-so-particular haircut (equal parts naughty schoolgirl and punishing schoolmarm) are pageboy and bob, but the connotations aren’t quite right. One had only to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent, breathtaking exhibition “Glitter and Doom” in order to understand just how historically “German” the style is. In canvas after canvas, there was hardly a prostitute or absinthe drinker whose hair wasn’t clipped into a Bubikopf helmet. And while there were certainly other incarnations of the liberated “New Woman” (including sports stars, flappers, and post-suffragettes) proliferating throughout Europe and America in the interwar period, none embodies the heady mix of social and political concern and possibility, new liberations and new dangers, as much as does the German variety.

It might seem ironic, then, that in the most recent exhibition to explore this look—and in particular its associations with Weimar Germany—we are directed toward a close examination of the American silent-movie actress Louise Brooks. Yet for those familiar with Brooks’s history, it is no surprise to see the Kansas farm girl–cum–Hollywood starlet cast in this light. For it was Brooks, after all, who, disenchanted with America and having terminated her contract with Paramount, moved to Berlin to take on the role of Lulu in G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929). In that film, the actress portrays a sexually and morally ambiguous woman whose thirst for pleasure sees her pursue delight and disaster with equal abandon. Bisexual, glamorous, and ultimately driven to self-annihilation (Lulu is killed during a tryst with Jack the Ripper), Brooks’s character is nonetheless revelatory in her powerful self-determination. And while her bad behavior would seem to elicit the wrath of a higher power, any conservative ethical message is deferred—or at least complicated—by the fact that Lulu seems to pursue her fate rather than having it happen to her in any passive sense. Indeed, writing on the film herself some thirty-five years later, Brooks remarked that the reason Pandora’s Box wasn’t well received in its time was that she had so blatantly played the role of Lulu “with no sense of sin.”

In a gem of a show, the International Center of Photography’s Vanessa Rocco brings together a number of gorgeous film stills and photographs of Brooks playing Lulu and Thymiane, the ostensibly (but not really) more innocent character Brooks took on in her subsequent project with Pabst, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). Incorporating, as well, a few images culled from other films of the period—including one of Heinrich George and Brigitte Helm in Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis (1927) and another of Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930)—Rocco provides a suggestive framework within which to rethink Brooks’s roles in film and culture. During the exhibition, Pandora’s Box is screened continually, yet audiences are encouraged to think about the photographs independently from the film. It is surprisingly apropos today to consider Brooks’s resolute inhabitation of an intentionally “difficult” breed of femininity—one that threatened gender confusion, questioned social mores, and implied that self-fashioning was a thing of real consequence. With the cornucopia of recent shows and symposia taking up feminism and its legacies, a return to Brooks and her Bubikopf is rewarding—her vintage “New Woman” feels strangely up-to-date.

Johanna Burton