Pandora's Box

1929, Movie, NR, 109 mins

Review

PANDORA'S BOX | DIE BUCHSE DER PANDORA
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In the German silent classic PANDORA'S BOX iconic beauty Louise Brooks stars as the vivacious chorine Lulu--characterized by her creator, Frank Wedekind, as "the personification of primitive sexuality who inspires evil unawares."

Lulu (Louise Brooks), a chorus girl, is being kept by a succession of older men. In an attempt to free himself from her seductive spell and quash rumors about their relationship, her current patron, a prominent newspaper publisher named Schon (Fritz Kortner) announces his engagement to a young society woman. He simultaneously persuades his son, Alwa (Franz Lederer), to put Lulu in a revue the boy is mounting, but warns him to be wary of her.

After Alwa and his father's fiancee surprise Schon and Lulu in a torrid backstage embrace, Schon, much against his better judgment, marries the chorine. At the wedding reception Alwa pleads with Lulu to run away with him. That night, realizing that the marriage is a mistake, Schon presses a gun into his bride's hand and exhorts her to kill herself, telling her that it's the only way to save both of them. Instead she shoots him, possibly by accident. As Schon is dying he says to his son, "Beware, Alwa. You are next!"

Despite Alwa's testimony on her behalf, Lulu is sentenced to five years for manslaughter, but she escapes imprisonment when one of her legion of supporters activates a fire alarm in the courthouse. Lulu flees to the Schon household where she finds Alwa. When he rebuffs her, she threatens to turn herself in, and he relents. The couple leave the country, accompanied by Lulu's old crony, Schigolch (Carl Goetz).

Three months later, on a gambling ship, Lulu has become the victim of assorted blackmailers and schemers, among them the Marquis Casti-Piani (Michael von Newlinsky), who threatens to sell her into white slavery if she doesn't pay him off. When Alwa, who has been gambling away what little money they possess, is caught cheating, the couple, along with Schigolch, flee to London, where, desperate for money, they take up residence in a squalid hovel.

Ultimately, with the encouragement of the alcoholic Schigolch and only token opposition from a dispirited Alwa, Lulu is forced to take to the streets. Her first client is a sad and penniless young man (Gustav Diesel). Unaware that he is the notorious serial killer, Jack the Ripper, Lulu takes a liking to him and invites him up to her room. There, as she is comforting and embracing him, he stabs her to death.

Based on a pair of turn-of-the-century plays, G. W. Pabst's PANDORA'S BOX was the second screen version of the scandalous adventures of Lulu. To play the central role Pabst summoned Louise Brooks, an extraordinarily photogenic American starlet who had enjoyed moderate--though less than stellar--prominence in Hollywood. "In Berlin," wrote Brooks many years later, "I stepped to the station platform to meet Mr. Pabst and became an actress." The film was not a great success upon its initial release. Generally considered too sexually explicit and morally ambiguous, PANDORA'S BOX became a victim of the censor's scissors and for years was available only in bowdlerized versions. Pabst and Brooks continued their collaboration in DIARY OF A LOST GIRL (1929).

Some films are richly composed and mounted; others are acted and paced with refreshing energy and naturalistic zest; PANDORA'S BOX is one of the few to combine these two, usually disparate, virtues. A good example of Pabst's talent for achieving both rigor and vigor is the movie's acclaimed backstage sequence--a veritable carnival of bustling cinematic beauty.

Playing the role that later earned her a large cult of admirers, Louise Brooks is unforgettable. Pabst had almost signed Marlene Dietrich (who lost Lulu but almost immediately landed Lola in THE BLUE ANGEL) when he realized that Dietrich lacked the innocent quality that his Lulu required. With her short, childlike hairdo ("my shiny black helmet"), her dark, clear, and widely spaced eyes (she was one of the first queens of the close-up), her pale and youthful--but insidiously voluptuous--flesh, and her gift for expressing spontaneous emotion without histrionics or apparent effort, Brooks was a Lulu for the ages. More than a great performance, it was an incarnation.

Had Lulu been enacted with the more blase and decadent touch of a Dietrich, viewers might have been less upset and PANDORA'S BOX less memorable. Brooks's Lulu might be a femme fatale but she's no black widow. She may be capable of occasional guile, but she's totally free of malice--and it was this blurring of the traditional line between the good girl and the evil woman that troubled movie audiences and censors in 1929.

Since that time social strictures have relaxed to the point where Lulu can now be read almost as a heroine: a victim of male lust and hypocrisy, a Dionysian earth mother (Pabst often places Lulu and her men in Pieta compositions), a generous sexual altruist, a good witch. That is why the movie's horrifying and beautiful conclusion becomes more poignant and powerful with each passing year. (Violence, adult situations.) leave a comment

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