Having fled her Berlin trial for the murder of her husband, Dr. Peter Schön, Lulu absconds to London with his son Alwa and lesbian countess Anna Geschwitz, where she descends into prostitution and, on Christmas Eve, encounters Jack the Ripper.
Louise Brooks very nearly didn't land her most iconic role, as she only learned of G.W. Pabst's interest in her as Paramount was terminating her contract. He had seen her in Howard Hawks's A Girl in Every Port, but had received no reply to repeated requests to star her in his adaptation of anti-bourgeois dramatist Frank Wedekind's plays, Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora (1902). Indeed, Pabst was on the point of casting Marlene Dietrich (whom he considered incapable of achieving Lulu's guilesss innocence) when Brooks arrived in Berlin.
With her bobbed hair and effortless sensuality, Brooks dominated the action and so shocked the Weimar censors with her amoral antics that not only were several captions rewritten - to suggest that Dr. Schön was an adoptive father instead of a lover and that Countess Geschwitz was a confidante not a lesbian vamp - but the ending was also changed, so that Lulu was spared the Ripper's blade and was redeemed by the Salvation Army. But for all its erotic insinuation and dramatic intensity, this is also a laudable technical achievement. Pabst deftly tailored the visual style to suit the narrative content, which was given additional diegetic and metaphorical significance by Joseph R. Fliesler's subtle cutting on movement. Thus, the Berlin sequences recall the studio realism that Pabst had devised for The Joyless Street, while the vibrant cabaret performance (which superbly conveyed the thrill of backstage tension) drew on the Impressionist techniques then current in French cinema. Finally, the scenes in the floating casino and on the forbidding London streets recalled the Expressionism that cinematographer Gunther Krampf had generated on F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, while also anticipating Josef von Sternberg's habit of using shadow, smoke and décor to enclose space, in order to suggest how Lulu's fate was gradually closing in on her. However, the film was accorded a mixed critical reception and Pabst was accused of betraying both Wedekind's prose and his own socio-political convictions by producing such a melodramatic potboiler. But its reputation has since been restored, thanks to Brooks's bestselling memoirs and Catherine Gaborit's painstaking reconstruction.
Bold for its time, this restored, uncut version is a touch slow at some points, but its star glows throughout.