Adaptation · Criterion Collection · Drama · Germany · LGBT · Silent Film

#358 Pandora’s Box (1929)

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#358 Pandora’s Box

1929 // Germany // Georg Wilhelm Pabst

Criterion Collection (LINK)

As film approached to the end of silent era in the late 20s, the Weimar cinema was transformed from the epoch of Expressionism into the movement of “New Objectivity”, which largely focused on social issues by employing realistic cinematic settings. Retrospectively, Austrian-born German director Georg Wilhelm Pabst is labelled as the premiere director of New Objectivity due to his “lifelike mise-en-scène and investment in surface effects”. Before his exile to America then France and finally back to the Nazi-occupied Germany in the 1930s, Pabst’s works often concentrated on the “sordid and commonplace stories of social crisis, disintegration, starvation, and prostitution” regarded as “street films”. The Joyless Street (1925), The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) are the few examples, and Pandora’s Box is probably the most renowned one owning to Louise Brooks’s indelible personification as the main character Lulu.

“The Greek gods created a woman – Pandora. She was beautiful and charming, and versed in the art of flattery. But the gods also gave her a box containing all the evils of the world. The heedless woman opened the box and all evil was loosen upon us”, as the prosecutor explains during the trial of murder halfway through the film, the director conveniently justifies the film title and proclaims Lulu (Louise Brooks) the defendant as the source of all misfortune surrounding herself and the numerous man whom she sexually connected with. There is a natural easiness almost effortlessly permeates the screen and beyond the screen, effused from Louise Brooke’s gleaming eyes and lips, characteristic bob hair and flirting and alluring gesture. In summation, Lulu is unwittingly seductive and erotic, yet naive and lack of self-awareness. She evokes human’s sexual desire and the pleasure of voyeurism, both on-screen (the fictional characters) and off-screen (spectators). As film historian Lotte Eisner stated what Pabst bought out in Lulu is “the erotic power of this singularly ‘earthy being’ endowed with animal beauty, but lacking all moral sense, and doing evil unconsciously”. Lulu’s actions, her manipulation and reliance on men, her narcissistic psyche whilst flipping through fashion magazine and appreciating herself in mirror image, were driven by her innate animalistic instinct. It serves to be the source of evilness which in turns leads to her demise under the knife of Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl).

All men in Pandora’s Box are portrayed as either ineffectual or exploitative. The film opens in Lulu’s apartment where Lulu’s patron Dr. Schön (Fritz Kortner) confesses his proposed marriage with the minister’s daughter, meanwhile Lulu’s former benefactor old Schigolch (Carl Goetz) is hiding in the balcony. Schön’a inability to express his desire on Lulu publicly due to his social status and the resulted scandalous nature shows the impotency of masculinity. The incongruity between his public behaviors and his inner desire prompts his decision to employ Lulu as the main dancer in his son Alwa’s (Francis Lederer) musical number. Alwa, apparently not much younger than Lulu, also has a crush on her. But his incapability to support Lulu financially and psychologically ultimately causes their downward spiral in the second half of the film. Alwa’s love to Lulu could be viewed as Oedipus Complex, a love to his “mother” and the urge to kill his own father, which is presented as the deadly confrontation between Lulu and Schön in their wedding night. The ambiguity in the relationship between Lulu and Schigolch is enigmatic, he could be Lulu’s former pimp, patron or even father, yet the film never intends to disclose it. The natures of all three men are summarized as Jack the Ripper near the end who, ignited by the beauty of Lulu and the display of a knife, submitted to the uncontrollable desire of killing. Hence confirms Lulu’s beauty is a double-edged sword. Even woman could not eschew the desire recognizable in Alwa’s friend Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) who epitomized the archetype of androgynous female.

Women being exploited by men is a theme that Kenji Mizoguchi repetitively indulged in as a more formative style in comparison. Whilst in Pandora’s Box Pabst utilizes close-up extensively on Lulu’s face, assisted by soft lens and lighting, to capture the beauty of Brooks as well as convey the expressiveness of her emotion. Brooks later claims that Pabst would “saturate me with one clear emotion and turn me loose”, which resulted in Brooks’s “unmannered plasticity”. They would collaborate again in Diary of a Lost Girl where innocence and autonomy are added in Brooks’s characterization, as a result the film ends in a relatively triumphant moment. But in Pandora’s box, everyone lose at a cost. It’s a pity that Pabst and Brooks did not continue their artistic collaboration further like Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Fortunately, Lulu alone was indomitable, and who minds opening the box of evil if it’s beauty inside.

Film Rating: 4/5
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