G. W. PABST’S tragic fable, from two plays by Frank Wedekind about a prostitute whose love for — and conquest of — a married man begins her spiral of decline, is one of the most beautifully filmed of all silent movies. Pabst’s unobtrusive but masterly compositions and disarmingly delicate lighting effects are the stuff of rapture. Then again, when Louise Brooks is your star, it’s your duty to place her in a context of perfection. Brooks plays the doomed, exquisite Lulu, who, with her sable bob and mischievous, calculating smile, became an enduring symbol of jazz-age freedom and joyousness. If beauty and saucy charm were all Brooks had to offer, she would have ended up a caricature. But this performance is so vital and so infinitely shaded that it inspires wonder each time you see it.
Brooks’s Lulu is an image of relaxed modernity: she may be willful, petulant and manipulative, but she is also a woman striding toward an uncertain future in a world that doesn’t provide easy comforts.
On the night of her disastrous wedding to the rich Dr. Schön (Fritz Kortner), who believes he adores her but really wants to possess her, she stands in front of the mirror, preparing to remove her wedding finery. The first thing to come off is a new strand of pearls, which represent the safe, pampered life she has been striving for. She lets the glowing beads pool in the palm of her hand, and we see her face in the mirror, an ivory moon framed by darkness. The faint smile that crosses her lips is not one of greed or catlike satisfaction but of quiet relief: she has set herself up for a life without worry and strife, not yet knowing that such a life is impossible. We have seen how frivolous and thoughtless she can be, and we have witnessed her gentle treachery, but judging her is unthinkable. We can’t trust Lulu; we can only believe her.
In addition to a new, restored transfer of the film, this two-disc set has four different musical scores (two of which were commissioned for this release) and a booklet that includes an essay by J. Hoberman, the Village Voice film critic, and Kenneth Tynan’s essential Brooks profile, “The Girl in the Black Helmet.” (Criterion Collection, Nov. 10, $39.95.) STEPHANIE ZACHAREK