Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der Pandora)

Director: G.W. Pabst
Screenplay: Joseph Fleisler, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, Ladislaus Vajda (based on the plays Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora by Frank Wedekind)
Stars: Louise Brooks (Lulu), Fritz Kortner (Dr. Peter Schön), Franz Lederer (Alwa Schön), Carl Goetz (Schigolch), Krafft-Raschig (Rodrigo Quast), Alice Roberts (Countess Anna Geschwitz), Gustav Diessl (Jack the Ripper)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1929
Country: Germany
Pandora’s Box: Criterion Collection DVD
Pandora’s BoxWhen the 21-year-old American actress Louise Brooks stepped off the train in Berlin, Germany in 1928, she didn’t speak a word of German and had no idea who Georg Wilhelm Pabst was outside of the fact that he had cabled her in Hollywood and was willing to pay her $1,000 a week to make a film. Brooks had just turned down an offer at Paramount, for whom she had been working steadily since 1926, because they were trying to cut costs to offset the price of converting to sound by paying their talent less.

Pabst was already a legendary director in Germany, where he had been central to the evolving nature of German expressionist cinema. Along with F.W Murnau and Fritz Lang, he was considered one of the greatest and most influential German directors of the era, for reasons the least of which was his amazing ability to recognize great female talent (his 1925 melodrama The Joyless Street was one of the first to feature Greta Garbo). Louise Brooks, though, turned out to be his greatest find, especially when you consider the enormous amount of criticism he endured for casting a relatively unknown American actress to play the role of a well-known German character (ironically, the character of Lulu had been portrayed on-screen before in the 1923 film Erdgeist, where she was portrayed by Danish-born Asta Nielsen).

It turned out to be a fortuitous decision for Brooks, as the resulting film she made with Pabst, Pandora’s Box, was not just star-making, but icon-making. She immediately went from being a recognizable, but hardly monumental Hollywood starlet to an international icon--the symbol of the liberated, jazzy, 1920s flapper, embodied most prominently in her razor-sharp, jet-black helmet of hair. Her character, Lulu, who had been created by Frank Wedekind in a series of turn-of-the-century plays, was to become so identified with her that she later called her autobiography Lulu in Hollywood. Lulu’s promiscuity and intractability reflected Brooks’ own personality and lifestyle; rarely had a performer and a character been so perfectly matched.

As a character, Lulu is a fascinating contradiction: Often described as an innocent, she nevertheless is a sexually precocious woman whose scandalous involvement with men ends in disaster after disaster. Lulu is universally desired; every man on screen is captivated by her, as is the lesbian Countess Anna Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), whose none-too-ambiguous advances toward Lulu are not lost in the film’s avalanche of sensuality. While Lulu is clearly presented as an object by both the male characters on screen and Pabst’s camera, an act in which she is highly complicit, Lulu refuses to be fully objectified because no one can ever hold onto her. She slips through the fingers of every man who tries to pin her down, literally and figuratively.

Lulu thus destroys everything she touches, including herself, yet guilt seems to slide right off her. This does not mean that she is truly innocent in the sense of being naïve. Rather, she knows exactly what she is doing, which Brooks makes perfectly clear in the knowing smile that crosses Lulu’s face in a scene in which she is discovered with another woman’s man. She literally stares down the jilted fiancée, and the look in her dark eyes reflects a stunningly clear self-awareness.

Yet, at other times, Lulu is like a child, swinging happily from a doorframe or sitting in the lap of her former mentor. She dances and cavorts and seems to be primarily interested in absorbing all that life has to offer, consequences be damned. During a trial near the middle of the film in which she is being tried for manslaughter, the prosecutor connects her with Pandora, the figure of Greek mythology whose curiosity drove her to open a box that unleashed misery on the world. The prosecutor is right to the extent that Lulu is “dangerous,” but he also misses the fundamental point of the myth that it was Pandora’s insatiable curiosity that drove her to open the box, not some sense of malice.

The first third of Pandora’s Box, which is deeply rooted in the moral decadence of Weimar Germany, follows Lulu’s involvement with Dr. Peter Schön (Fritz Kortner, who looks like a cross between Orson Welles and Bob Hope), a respected editor-in-chief who nonetheless dumps his socially well-connected fiancée for Lulu, a woman he knows he should never marry. His intuition turns out to be exactly right, as his marriage to Lulu ends before the wedding night with his death. The rest of the film follows Lulu as she tries to escape from this past, which takes her to a gambling ship where she is almost sold to an Egyptian brothel owner, and then finally ends up working as a prostitute on the wharfs in London.

As a product of Weimer-era German cinema, Pandora’s Box is a fascinating film because it not only embodies two of that era’s dominant tendencies--psychological realism and expressionism--but gradually morphs from one to the other. Pabst shot the first half of the film in a straightforward manner, using realistic sets and lighting and focusing primarily on the actors’ performances, ensuring that the potentially over-the-top melodramatic plot devices remained grounded in recognizable human behavior. However, once Lulu leaves Berlin and begins her odyssey (which will, naturally, spiral downward into a tragedy in which she is strangely complicit), the film slowly grows more and more expressionistic. By the final scenes in London, it is as if Lulu has somehow stumbled onto the cinematic terrain of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). It’s a brilliant move, as it allows the film to slowly and seamlessly shift the audience’s perceptions of the narrative, infusing it with a seedy visual darkness that reflects poor Lulu’s descend into the abyss.

Sadly, the same was almost true of Louise Brooks. Despite following up Pandora’s Box with another Pabst film, The Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, 1929), she eventually grew bored of Europe and returned to Hollywood, where she spent a couple of lean years playing bit roles before finally quitting the film business altogether and receding into obscurity. Her notoriety would be revived in the 1950s when historians and scholars rediscovered Pandora’s Box after it had been out of circulation for nearly three decades, and a new cult of admirers grew around her. Yet, it is hard to deny the feeling that her career was cut tragically short, even if it is hard to imagine that, given all the resources at Hollywood’s disposal, she could have ever transcended her iconic achievement in Pandora’s Box. Everything else was doomed to be a pale shadow.

Pandora’s Box Criterion Collection Two-Disc Special Edition DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
  • Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by film scholars Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Ann Doane
  • Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu (1998), a 60-minute documentary by Hugh Munro Neeley
  • “Lulu in Berlin” (1971), a rare, 48-minute interview with Louise Brooks by documentarian Richard Leacock and Susan Steinberg Woll
  • New video interviews with Leacock, about Brooks, and Michael Pabstm the director’s son
  • Stills gallery
  • Insert book featuring Kenneth Tynan's 1979 essay “The Girl in the Black Helmet,” an article by Louise Brooks on her relationship with Pabst, and a new essay by critic J. Hoberman
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 28, 2006

    Criterion has admittedly been sitting on the rights to Pandora’s Box for the better part of a decade, largely because they didn’t have access to film elements that they felt were worthwhile. Apparently, they finally found one: a 35mm composite print supplied by the Munich Film Museum, who restored the film to its original 133-minute running time in 1997. This became the source for a new high-definition transfer that was then given the digital treatment with the MTI Digital Restoration System. Given the age of the film and the fact that it was largely out of circulation until the 1950s, the image is far from perfect. However, it looks better than it ever has on home video, with a bright, well-detailed image that doesn’t suffer terribly from the numerous scratches and hairlines that were impossible to remove without distorting the image, as well as imperfections in the original film stock (which result in a translucent black bar along the top of the frame from time to time). There are some dropped frames here and there and other signs of age, but Criterion seems to have done everything possible to bring the image as close to its original glory as is currently possible.

    In the sound department, Criterion has clearly gone above and beyond the call of duty, presenting us with a menu of four soundtrack options: a classically inspired orchestral score by silent film expert Gillian Anderson; a cabaret score by Dimitar Pentchev, which is meant to evoke the music of Weimar Germany; a modern orchestral score by German composer Peer Raben, who often worked with Rainer Werner Fassbinder; and a piano score by Stéphan Oliva. Anderson’s score is presented in lush 5.1 surround sound, while the other three scores are presented in two-channels stereo. Regardless, all of them sound incredible. One simple, but very cool feature is that, when you highlight one of the scores from the on-screen menu, you can hear an excerpt played to give you an idea of what it’s like.

    The screen-specific audio commentary is of a particularly scholarly nature, which befits the openness and depth of the film itself. The commentary is supplied by two widely published and highly respected film scholars: Thomas Elsaesser, a professor at the University of Amsterdam and author of numerous books, including Weimar Cinema and After (2002) and Mary Ann Doane, a professor at Brown University who specializes in cinema, feminism, and psychoanalysis. Not surprisingly, then, Doane’s comments are particularly jargony, as she discusses things like Lulu being “despatialized” and being turned into “an erotic surface.” Nevertheless, both she and Elsaesser have a substantial insight to offer (Doane claims to have been studying it for 25 years), and they don’t mind disagreeing with each other’s interpretations directly from time to time.

    Ths second disc consists primarily of two documentaries. The first, Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu, is an excellent hour-long documentary produced in 1998 for Turner Classic Movies. It features interviews with several scholars and historians; people who knew Brooks, including her niece and sister-in-law; and Brooks herself in a rare 1976 interview. It traces Brooks’s fascinating, roller-coaster life, starting from her beginnings as a small-town Kansas dancing prodigy, to her becoming an erotic icon and movie star despite doing everything “wrong” (narrator Shirley MacLaine’s first words in the doc refer to Brooks burning every bridge in her life). There are clips from a number of her surviving films, including her first, uncredited screen appearance in The Street of Forgotten Men (1925). The second documentary, Lulu in Berlin (1984) features a lengthy interview with Brooks conducted in 1971 by documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock. Brooks remains a fascinating screen presence, spinning stories about working with Pabst and her hard years in the 1940s before being rediscovered. Also included on the disc is an extensive stills gallery. The insert book features a reprint of Kenneth Tynan’s 1979 essay “The Girl in the Black Helmet,” which was largely responsible for rejuvenating interest in the actress, an article by Louise Brooks on her relationship with Pabst, and a new essay by critic J. Hoberman.

    Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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