Pandora’s Box (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)



Scandal! Adultery! Prostitution! Serial killing! Gambling! A host of other behaviors — good or not, housed in the unlikely framing of a silent film of 1929. A German one, to be fair, but this is not your traditional expressionistic Ufa cinema, this is a beautiful, only marginally stylized human story, shot with a classical delicacy and vibrant energy, a movie that seems neither apart from its time nor of it. Rather, it seems startlingly modern, even permanent. Pandora’s Box — the best-known work of Georg Wilhelm Pabst — is subtle, innovative, rebellious, and incredibly seductive.

The film follows the iconic character of Lulu, the mistress of a newspaper man who gets homicidal ideas when Lulu reconnects with an old client; ultimately Lulu accidentally kills him and then runs off with his son where they live in various kinds of squalor until she has a fateful encounter with a shadowy figure in the streets of London. The story is more sweeping than it sounds here, hypnotically told; it’s hard to know if Pabst could have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Downhill, but this film functions as a gender reversal of that one and vastly eclipses it in emotion and style. Most modern interpretations portray the film as a condemnation of sexual freedom, but it plays more as a feminist screed to me, about the prejudice and hardship suffered by a well-meaning woman whose only bad deed is her own poverty. This is amplified by the manner in which Lulu’s friends are warm and fun-loving, including her best friend (Francis Lederer) who’s clearly struggling with an unrequited crush on her, in contrast to the stuffy priggishness of Lulu’s father-and-son lovers and the “establishment.” In this sense as in so many others, Pandora’s Box is shockingly prescient.

Pabst is very much unlike the German directors who marked the peak of the silent film as a stylish form; the camera in Pandora’s Box is nearly invisible, the settings are slightly stylized (note a shot of a murderer gazing upon a warning poster that’s directly referenced in Fritz Lang’s M) but realistic, the “cinematic” flourishes rarely calling attention to themselves. This refinement comes to us because style is integrated so painlessly with story here; every shot has a painterly depth and beauty, but every shot also serves a distinct purpose. The fog looks like fog, the world looks as muddy and distant as it should, the bleak universe of the film comes across in a way it never could in color, in much the same way that the story couldn’t be told nearly as well in a sound film, so little does the dreamlike narrative power require the use of dialogue to move itself onward. It couldn’t be made today; we only wish it could.

The lead role of Lulu is filled by the absolutely immortal Louise Brooks, in an enigmatic and wonderful performance that recalls Lillian Gish as an equally put-upon tragic heroine in The Wind — the influence of Gish’s gaze is everywhere — but with a divine ingredient new to this film: pure, undiluted sensuality. Pandora’s Box is probably the most unabashedly erotic of all major silent films, and it gleans this element from both the sexual rhythm of the storytelling, seemingly a direct antecedent of Rebecca in the way it ebbs and flows with lust, romance and reckoning, and (mostly) from Brooks herself, so alluring that even the women of the film cannot resist her, indeed go insane over her. And yet Brooks is able to communicate her sweetness and simplicity, the absence of dark motives to her lifestyle. Hers is a staggering performance.

One occasionally sees a movie that reminds one why movies are worth watching. Certainly it is refreshing to see a classic film or a silent film that will immediately refute everything the casual viewer believes about them prior to seeing it. It is because of movies like Pandora’s Box that people write and care about film; messy and sad and ecstatic, it is life on celluloid.

[Slightly expanded and reworded version of a review posted in 2007.]

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