Film Review #80: Pandora’s Box
Cast: Louise Brooks, Carl Goetz, Francis Lederer
When I stopped at the International Center of Photography last Friday afternoon in mid-town Manhattan, by far the most crowded exhibit was that housed in the smallest room on the lower level. “Louise Brooks and the New Woman in Weimar Cinema” is just 25 film stills, not very large – most of them from the Austrian director G.W. Pabst’s 1929 Pandora’s Box – then a couple film magazines from that era, and Pandora’s Box itself, looping continuously on a tiny wall monitor.
No matter – those watching it stood rapt. In the role of ill-fated Lulu, Kansas-born Louise Brooks personified both the aspirations and dire warnings attached to modern women’s abrupt shift in status between the world wars. And it is distinctly her “look” we see in classic screen flappers from Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles in Cabaret (1972) on. At the ICP, one woman sighed and said, “I saw this in 35 millimeter on the big screen in June. Gorgeous!”
Set in the late 1880’s (we know this because the London murders of Jack the Ripper eventually figure intimately in the plot), Pandora’s Box depicts the tragic fall of Lulu in eight acts. We first meet her dressed in satin with a whiskey bottle under one arm and a purse full of money under the other, juggling gentleman callers in a ritzy Berlin apartment. She hustles one out to welcome in the elderly, tattered Schigolch (Carl Goetz) - she variously describes him as her “first patron” and her father - who at once helps himself to her purse. She’s also juggling the rich editor Schön, who tries to leave her to marry respectably, and his stage producer son Alwa. Schön the elder lectures his son, “You don’t marry women like that. It would be suicide!”
This kind of line is always prophetic. Schön does die by gun-shot on the night of his wedding to Lulu and a court finds her guilty. Although Lulu actually is innocent, the prosecutor likens her magnetic sensuality to that of the ancient goddess Pandora, who unleashed evil upon the world. With Alwa, Schigolch and yet another admirer, Countess Geschwitz, in tow, Lulu escapes from the courtroom. Aboard a tramp steamer, an Egyptian brothel-owner almost buys Lulu for Alwa’s gambling debts. Lulu and her band arrive finally in a London slum with posters that warn of women disappearing and snow gusting through the skylight on Christmas Eve. Now frankly a street-walker, Lulu has a last, momentarily romantic date with Jack.
As the woman in the ICP mentioned, Pandora’s Box had a two-week theatrical run in New York City last spring, anticipating its November release in a sumptuous two-disc DVD edition with a restored, 133-minute print. This includes Richard Leacock's documentary and another made in 1998 for Turner Classic Films, plus four newly commissioned options for musical accompaniment.
Partly this DVD celebrates the centennial of Brooks’ birth and the latter-day revival of her reputation – both the film and the woman languished in obscurity for years before the George Eastman House in Rochester re-discovered both in the 1950’s. (In fact Brooks lived in Rochester for the last couple decades of her life, where she wrote a respected, still-in-print memoir of the film industry, Lulu in Hollywood.)
Partly there is wider interest lately in Germany’s Weimar Republic (1918-33) for the mixture of political upheaval, economic panic, artistic creativity and decadence that preceded Hitler’s rise, and for parallels with our own time. Besides the ICP show, the Metropolitan’s “Glitter and Doom” exhibition of Weimar-era portraits runs until next month.
And partly Pandora’s Box is, like the lady said, just gorgeous. If you have never seen a silent movie, this is a good place to start. You can see how film is related to photo in a direct way that is largely lost to us in most modern movies – undistracted by color, spoken dialogue and sound effects, you are returned to film in its original visual innocence and splendor, with musical accompaniment just to keep the pace. Although based on a popular stage play, Pandora’s Box is an experience in image, not language.
Pabst chose Brooks over Marlene Dietrich for Lulu's role, and drew from her a performance full of spark, grace and subtlety. Brooks happened to be free only because she walked out of her Paramount contract in a dispute over converting the first modern detective film, The Canary Murder Case, into a talkie. Thank goodness the Eastman House found this movie.
This review appeared in the 2/1/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly for “Make it Snappy: DVDs You Should Get Around To,” a weekly column reviewing films that never opened theatrically in Syracuse and older films of enduring worth.