• Wedekind's play, and Lulu at the Movies

    Franz Wedekind (1868-1914) was a born radical.

    Her mother, Emilie Kammerer, the daughter of some Hungarian liberals that fled the country after the 1848's Revolutions, had lived in Chile and Cuba, before singing in the vaudeville and met doctor Wedekind in San Francisco. He was also in exile and they both fell in love and decided to marry and return to Germany, to Hannover, where they will be part of some political movements against the power of the Chancellor Bismark. There in Hannover his son Benjamin Franklin (Franz) Wedekind was born. The family moved later to Switzerland, where our good doctor Wedekind found an exployment as journalist.

    A womanizer, a drinker, a blasphemer... The young Wedeking started to study Philisophy in college, but soon he decided to concentrate on journalism and literature. He travelled to Paris in 1891, where he will be a close friend of Strindberg, and an even closer friend of his wife, Frida. He lives the Bohemian life, and publish his first play (he pays the editorial costs, with his father's inheritance), Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening), on the sexually-oppressive culture of fin de siècle Germany, and the erotic fantasies that it breeds in a group of teenagers, with a tragical ending.

    This piece have been adapted as a succesful Broadway musical and also, more relevant to our subject matter, as an opera, by Belgian composer Benoît Mernier:

    Those years in Paris will be very important to him when he started to work on what would be the masterpiece of his life, the story of Lulu. It will be published in two parts, "Earth Spirit" (Erdgeist, 1895) and "Pandora's Box" (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1904), mainly by practical reasons, because on Wedekind's mind they were just one play (in fact, they were staged as just one piece, under the title of Lulu, in 1913, cutting the last act of Erdgeist and the fist act of Pandora, and also the Jack the Ripper character. But the canonical version remains the two plays together).

    The myth of Pandora is Greek. She was the first woman created by Zeus as a vehicle to carry the Evil into human beings, as a revenge for Prometheus's steal of fire. Pandora (the all-gifted) carries a box containing all possible evils, that must be closed at any price. As could be expected, curiosity won and after the box is opened, many plagues are free to ravage the world. Wedekind's plan was to present Lulu as an atavistic creature, a modern Pandora, a living representation of sexual desire and the inevitability of the clash between civilization and basic instincts. And he wanted also to send a message: sexuality is the same for all social classes, and reveals them as nothing more than an artifice and an injustice.

    Erdgeist was premiered in 1898, in Leipzig, with success and Wedeking himself playing the role of Dr. Schön. The Berlin premiere was in 1902, staged by Max Reinhardt, and there were 150 performances. After that, Pandora was staged in 1904, in Nuremberg, and was also another hit for Wedekind. However, both pieces were accused of inmorality, and a German court banned the plays for being staged in the Reich's territory. This ban was enforced until the defeat of Germany, in 1918.

    Wedekind's plays have not aged well. Today, when the original scandal and the shock of the frank treatment of sex are so far behind us, only the skeleton of the work remains. In this case the Cinema and, of course, Opera have produced an artistic result much improved on the original. However, Wedekind's merit as a creator of a myth of our times, an archetype of modernity, is still there.

    Lulu at the Movies

    While Alban Berg was working in Lulu, he assembled in 1934 the "Lulu Suite" for orchestra and soprano. It was from these first two acts that the music for the concert suite was drawn, in the manner of the earlier Three Fragments from Wozzeck. Though of course it can be used as a kind of first contact with the opera, this is an outstanding work in its own right.

    Germany, the 1920s.

    German cinema is living a veritable golden age with great directors like Fritz Lang, Murnau, Wiene... that are transfering to the silent screen the artistic convictions that Expresionism is advocating since early 20th century.Of course, Wedekind's plays are a temptation and in 1923 Leopold Jessner filmed the story of Lulu, adapting Erdgeist. His Lulu is a big star of the period, Danish actress Asta Nielsen:

    In this version many aspects of the original play are sweetened (there is no lesbian love between Lulu and the Countess, Schigolch is almost a father figure,...), and our heroine is more a femme fatale that the force of Nature we can find chez Wedekind. The movie has only an academic appeal now.

    However, in 1929 the great director G.W. Pabst decided to film a new adaptation of Wedekind's plays. In the movie, under the title of "Pandora'x Box" he put together both plays and present the full story of Lulu. As it was his trademark, Pabst mixed up some social criticism with a more conventional character's development. This is a very good movie, arguably Pabst's best, and one of the best filmed in the 1920s.

    The charming creature in the poster is the American actress Louise Brooks. Pabst was a good friend of Asta Nielsen and other famous European actresses (including Greta Garbo herself), but he was unable to find the right protagonist for his movie. He was considering to engage a young German actress by the name of Marlene Dietrich, when he watched Hawks's movie "A girl in every port", starring Louise Brooks. Pabst immediately decided she would be her Lulu. It was a very wise move. The way Brooks, just twenty two years old, performed Lulu was a true miracle. It wasn't an actress in a role, it was Lulu herself. Something similar, to give an example of the same period, to what happened with Marie Falconetti and Joan of Arc.

    The quality of the movie is really outstanding, but it was not really recognized by the critics until the 1950s, even when there were good box office numbers in Germany and other European countries in the 1920s. Cleverly, Pabst was making Brooks the center of all the action, using her androgynous looks, so full of sensuality, but also strangely vulnerable. In marked contrast with Wedekind's cold, almost robotic, woman, Pabst's Lulu is surrounded by an aura of innocence, of luminosity. A late Romanticism, melancholic, pervades the movie. Technically, the film is a proper son of its time and place, with those vertical shots, framed by sinister shadows and an oppressive atmoshphere... even when there are some small touches of comedy, like the scene in the theater.

    The plot joins Wedekind's two plays, like Berg will do in the opera. The movie starts showing Lulu and her knack for using men, introducing then Dr. Schön's character (performed by Frizt Gortner), the Editor in Chief of an important newspaper. He is Lulu's lover, and the fiancée of the daughter of an important politician. He is also the father of Alwa, a young man with artistic interests. Both will be victims of their attraction to Lulu.

    A very erotic fight between Schön and Lulu forces the ruin of the journalist plans to marry the politician daughter's. He finally will marry Lulu, and we can see after the wedding party the strange death of Schön, that pretends that Lulu shoots herself, but the girl shoots him instead, while the young Alwa confess he is in love with her.

    The trial scene is perhaps the best of the movie. Louise Brooks is captivating, appearing with a suggestive veil that she will manage to increase the tension, and bewitch the prosecutor himself. Taking advantage of a brawl in the courtroom, Lulu escapes.

    In the last part of the movie, we are witness to the spiral of degradation suffered by Lulu: she flees with Alwa by rail, is chased by the justice, travels in a dirty ship, is pretended by an Arab businessman, goes to London as a prostitute where she is murdered by Jack the Ripper in a foggy night, while unaware of Lulu's fate, Alwa deserts her.

    Louise Brooks was never able to get another success like Lulu, and she discreetly retired from the movies in 1938. However, many years later, she published a wonderful autobiography, a must for every Lulu fan to read, "Lulu in Hollywood":

    This article was originally published in forum thread: Opera in-Depth: Lulu started by Schigolch View original post

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