Lulu in Berlin

By Claudia Siefen

“She liked to talk and talked a lot”

Richard Leacock shot the multi-part interview film A Conversation with Louise Brooks in March 1974 in Rochester for the german TV station “Norddeutscher Rundfunk”, which was broadcasted at the time together with Pandora’s Box and mainly contained Brooks’ memories of G. W. Pabst. It is one of a total of three Brooks interview films and, according to Brooks’ own statement, it was the one that gave her the greatest pleasure.

“It was clear to me that our conversation would be the focus, and the title A Conversation with Louise Brooks is very precise: You know what you’re getting into. Or not at all. That was so long ago! We had both talked on the phone before. She opened the door and asked me to take off my shoes. That’s what I did.

A clean, small apartment. Actually she didn’t like visits, she was afraid somehow that they would cancel her rent subsidy if people went in and out of her apartment! We sat down and immediately she started talking about G. W. Pabst, as far as I remember. That was a simple and logical start, because we both respected him enormously. I didn’t even know so many of her films, but of course the two she had made with Pabst.

At first she didn’t want this direct contact, just called me from Rochester, she had this little apartment there, and one day she probably forgot all her caution and left her phone number on my answering machine! I called her back and finally she agreed. And of course she wanted a fee. I waited and thought about what I would have to sell in order to be able to afford it… I produced the film for German television at the time. Louise wasn’t enthusiastic about the whole idea at all. Years before that, this American, the New Yorker … Kenneth Tynan … had done some nonsense, written some wild lyrics, in any case all that hadn’t been right for her later on. And then she called me and said that she would do the interview, but I’d have to bring her a bank check. Over 300 dollars! You have to imagine that, that’s nothing! And I don’t know exactly what happened to Tynan. I think he just wrote things that she had told him in confidence. You don’t do that: telling all kinds of things and then wondering afterwards that it will be published! Not everyone was so enthusiastic about Louise. George Cukor also asked me later: “What’s wrong with her? I think she is completely unimportant, isn’t she?”

The special thing about my documentary was that two people were just sitting together who knew what they were talking about. That’s rare enough even today. She loved to talk and talked a lot: When she called me, she said that she hadn’t drunk anything for four days now and her head was clear. You shouldn’t underestimate that with her: the drinking, that was really bad. I knew it myself then, we both knew it very well, better than it was good for us. She needed four days, no alcohol, to be able to talk to me! And when she started talking, everything was in her head, as if it had been yesterday.

Pandora’s Box

She loved Pabst, she liked men at all who told her what to do! She liked people around her who she thought were smart, who could teach her something. She didn’t think she herself was very smart, although she was. Talking to her was always like playing ping-pong. And her lyrics and poems later, her essays! She just wrote beautifully, cleverly and eloquently, she knew what she was talking about. Her apartment was full of books, but we didn’t talk about books. But about Pabst. And about Riefenstahl: there she was, Leni, always a little jealous. She always showed up on the set, grabbed Pabst, disappeared into the furthest corner with him; I think she wanted to hire him for her troop… But Pabst always took care of Louise, constantly ripping something out of her hand, either the glass or the cigarettes.

And she had to be in bed early, too; she didn’t experience that so often that a director took care like that. “Oh, you know,  I always wanted to do something about Riefenstahl … And I was supposed to make a film with her, but my German wasn’t good enough to really talk to her. I learned German at boarding school, the German teacher was …, I was completely in love with her at the time, and that’s where I learned German. By the way, Claudia, later we should talk a little German, do you mind?”

As a filmmaker, I always respected Riefenstahl very much. She knew Pabst, she also worked for Hitler. I know that! She acted and directed, she was very skilful in everything. Triumph of the Will has wonderfully resolved scenes, these fighting men, and she worked with synchronized sound, that was unknown at the time. Before Pandora’s box, Pabst didn’t know Louise. He knew nothing about Louise. There is this wonderful dance scene at the beginning, this scene with the harmonica. Pabst didn’t know at all that Louise could dance! And so he just waited to see what she would improvise. And when he saw that she could dance! He grabbed her after the take and cheered: “You can really dance!” Imagine that: He whirled her around and rejoiced.

Louise liked him very much and felt understood by him. He cared a lot for her, but left her alone at the same time, you know what I mean? He just told her what to do before every shoot: “Go down the stairs and look sad. Then she did. He didn’t explain any connections at all. He knew exactly what she had to do. In my film she tells how she and Pabst met at the Bahnhof Zoo in Berlin, as if they had always known each other. There are people like that. Sometimes you meet them. It was the same with Louise and me. We got along well together. She said I had made her laugh.”

– This my conversation with Richard Leacock (1921-2011) about Louise Brooks (1906-1985) took place in Paris in 2006.