Pandora's Box
aka Die Büchse der Pandora
Reviewed in January 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: G.W. Pabst. Cast: Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Franz Lederer, Carl Goetz, Alice Roberts, Krafft-Raschig, Michael von Newlinsky, Daisy D'Ora, Gustav Diessl. Screenplay: Ladislaus Vajda (from the plays Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora by Frank Wedekind).

Screened in 35mm at the Bank of America Cinema with live organ accompaniment. If you live in Chicago and haven't visited this facility, go!

Photo © 1929 Nero-Film AG
You have to believe that all of the characters in Pabst's Pandora's Box have absolutely terrible breath, from all the cigarettes and swallowed gin, all the despair and the self-deception. It's one of Pabst's gifts to evoke the sensual atmosphere of his movies with such richness that you think in terms of odors, temperatures, flavor, and haze, even as the movies barrel in on the kind of fine-grained character study that such exemplary image-makers often allow themselves to fudge just a little. From our entry into the film, in Lulu's disreputable little atélier, where she herself is both the artist and the art, and all the way through the ending, where a rainstorm, a broken window, and a flimsy piece of cloth is all Pabst needs to fill an entire room with salient moods, Pandora's Box is atmospherically impressive. Pandora may not equal the dankness, the concision, and the multi-character breadth of Pabst's Joyless Street, but this famous Wedekind adaptation nonetheless places its morally and psychologically compromised characters into a robust and nuanced relationship with the physical, textural, and idiomatic traits of their surroundings. You can't separate Pabst's characters from the rooms, streets, and worlds that surround them, any more than you can detach his doomed climbers from the icy, perilous ranges of The White Hell of Pitz Palü.

At the same time, Pabst evokes psychology without reducing it to environmental determinism, and nor does he rely on the heightened palettes and geometrics of contemporaries like Murnau and Lang in order to communicate the tensions and excesses of his characters (though I certainly intend no disrespect to those dissimilar masters). And what a character is Louise Brooks's Lulu, as doomed a climber as anyone in Pitz Palü, though in Wedekind and Pabst's refusal of reductive dramatics, Lulu isn't moving unambiguously "up" in the world. Sure, she marries an older and prominent newspaper publisher, though this marriage sets a new land-and-sea speed record for ending horribly. Still, one never gets the sense she is hellbent on escaping her loose life, her planky, under-furnished apartment, or even her pimps. She seems to enjoy surveying all the different relationships and environments where she can inject and sustain her lusty éclat. She doesn't have a revolving door of lovers so much as a blithely accumulated menagerie of yearning idolators; ironically, in Brooks's performance and in Pabst's choreography, the one time she makes a clear choice to "move up" through one of her amorous conquests, not only is she engaging in her first undisguised act of prostitution, she has the bad fortune, tipped off by the opening titles, of leading Jack the Ripper up the M-like stairs to her draughty apartment.

In other words, Pandora's naturalistic grasp of what people do for pleasure, for money, for jealous pride, for desperate self-exoneration, or for equally desperate martyrdom or self-debasement avoids being overlaid with some crude social hydraulic of "upward" or "downward" moves. Lulu's effect is equally deleterious on companions who are "above" or "below" her, and the character who is her hedonistic equal—the dissolute Schigolch (Carl Goetz), a sort of withered, wiry-haired Dorian Gray portrait for Lulu's wanton lifestyle—has unmistakably but quite irrelevantly slipped "beneath" her in social standing. He's so incapacitated, he's reduced to hiding on Lulu's adjoining balcony while she prepares to entice another paramour; when a dog threatens to expose his concealment, he tries to souse it with a serving of liquor from his cupped palm.

The film is about erotic, social, criminal, comic, and spiritual drives, not about strategic moves, and while Pabst pulls no punches about Lulu's corrosive effect on all of the people to whom she grows closest, he never pretends that any of their masts were ever fully upright before Lulu happened along. Fritz Kortner's glowering eminence, Franz Lederer's fragile romanticism and incipient despondency, Alice Roberts's unswerving Sapphic fixation, and Krafft-Raschig's oily, obtuse possessiveness all have a memorable and freestanding existence as types that exceed Lulu's influence even as they fall so inexorably under that influence. It's a testament to Pabst and to the actors that none of these is characters is only a type. The film, meanwhile, is more interested in the waywardness of almost everyone's longings and in their failures of self-preservation than it is about Lulu's particular immorality or recklessness. Maintaining a kind of equal-opportunity cynicism keeps the film oddly free of moralism, and it accedes quite fully and willingly to the Lulu's seductive joie de vivre, which makes the other characters easier to understand, and insulates the film from an air of tsk-tsk'ing hypocrisy.

If something must be said against Pandora's Box, and I think it must, the middle section detailing Lulu's fugitivity from justice and young Alwa Schön's pathetic, self-evacuating attempts to protect and support her gets dramatically logy and visually uninspired. The supporting cast suddenly feels overly replete with blackmailers and petty Machiavellians, all giving Lulu the same licentious looks, and the gambling rooms of the ocean liner seem stagebound, under-exploited for spatial coherence, much less in terms of psychological resonance. However, after a subpar half-hour in the middle of Pandora's Box, it's inspiring how quickly it restores itself to a creative peak for everyone involved: certainly for Lederer and Goetz and for cinematographer Günther Krampf, and especially for Brooks, who is as sinuously natural and as three-dimensionally suggestive as everyone has always said. Lulu's costumes, glamorous though they are, and adept at accentuating Brooks's swanlike neck and sybaritic postures, nevertheless look as though people have been tearing away whatever strips of fabric they could get their hands on. The characters treat Lulu herself in much the same way, and Brooks evokes how the character feels deeply everyone's gluttonous, threatening attraction to her and yet relishes the attention. She's an ineffably modern gal, without stressing the sorts of actorly gestures that would beg us to love her for being so modern, and she bravely plays the character instead of playing down to her. She shows us how Lulu finds at least some kind of joy with all of the covetous men and women she meets, and she never once plays to our awareness of Lulu's imminent, tawdry demise. This is why not just the movie but the performance suffers when the middle phase feels like a coy, repetitive advertisement for Brooks's indubitable charisma, and for Lulu's aphrodisiac, uncharacteristically sentimentalized effects on everyone. The movie thrives most when Lulu seems least self-conscious, or when she's caught between multiple states at once: boredom and affection, guilt and innocence, candor and heartlessness, tragedy and hedonism.

Happily, Pabst and Brooks are in such synch about Lulu's lewd grace, her naïveté and her survival instincts, that the film would be a classic if it were only a vessel for delivering this brilliant, modulated characterization. That Pandora's Box yields frequent, comparable, empathetic insights into so many of its characters—even the neurotically unstable Jack the Ripper, who himself is no match for the insistent gleam of an unpropitiously placed breadknife—makes the movie even more impressive. Lulu needs to feel like a force of nature for this story to work, and Brooks certainly brings her across that way, but Pabst recognizes that Nature at large extends far, far past whatever spark of it resides and luxuriates in Lulu. He evokes both how sad and how inevitabile it is that, even in relation to such a vivid, energetic, luridly resilient soul as Lulu, the shadow and jaw of nature always win. A–

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