Die Buchse Der Pandora (AKA: Pandora’s Box) – 1929
Director – G. W. Pabst
Starring – Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts, and Carl Goetz
There are a whole stable full of directors that you hear about, and see examples from during film school. You get a bit of a buffet education as it concerns the history of film combined with a bit of the preferences and eccentricities of the person teaching the class. What you don’t get, is a real comprehensive view of any country or movement’s stable of talented directors or actors for any given time period. Due to a lack of time, and with such a wealth of history packed into the 130 years or so that film has been around, there are bound to be more than a few important names and examples that fall through the cracks.
One such director was G. W. Pabst, a name I had heard on more than one occasion during one or two of my cinema history classes, but nothing that was ever explored in-depth. As far as Pabst’s rather sizable list of credits, the name that comes up more than any of the others, time and again as one of his best is (surprise, surprise, that’s why I’m writing this review) Pandora’s Box. So does the most popular film from one of Germany’s greatest directors of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s deserve more attention in the eyes of the world? Absolutely, it does.
Pandora’s Box tells the story of the ingenue Lulu, a woman struggling to balance the expectations of the multiple men in her life, while each in turn blames her for all of their shortcomings and misfortunes. Lulu, the object of each (and presumably every) man’s desire, simultaneously becomes the scapegoat and the solution for each. It is implied, rather explicitly, that she is a courtesan. An object to covet, to own, use, and discard as the situation demands.
To Schigolch, the man who turned her out (read: pimp), she is a source of income and security, a commodity to be spent. To her current keeper, Dr. Schon, she is a trophy to be proudly kept and displayed. To Alwa, Dr. Schon’s son, she is an innocent to be lusted after and saved. Each man takes it upon himself to “rescue” Lulu through ineffectual half-measures, later blaming her for their own actions. Where once she was considered a shining, golden conquest, now she is seen as a home-wrecker, and a burden.
While she doesn’t strictly do anything malicious or wrong per se, Lulu never really learns her lesson and manages to perpetuate the cycle through her own inaction. She is more than willing to let these people come to her rescue and place her in these gilded cages. Either unable or unwilling to stand up for herself against her “benefactors”, Lulu continues to spiral downwards into worse and worse situations culminating in selling herself, body and soul.
I have this impression of movies from this day and age as being simply sensational adventures to thrill audiences. Pandora’s Box, with its contemplation of gender, sexuality, dominance, and castigation, is a different animal all together. With this film, there is an intelligence and genuine desire to explore different points of view, a challenge to the audience to consider the inequalities facing woman, and illustrating the need for examination and change. All of this, mind you was taking place in the aftermath of World War I, during the rise of the Nazi party, alongside the economical, and social chaos and turmoil that was Germany in 1929.
Louise Brooks, the American expatriate who plays Lulu, does an exceptional job in the role, embracing the it from her trademark bob-haircut, to her pouty doe-eyed expression. Many were upset at the casting of an American in what was considered a role meant for a German, but fears were ultimately assuaged and critics were duly mollified upon seeing Brooks’ performance. Truly, she made the role hers, and she has remained synonymous with the character of Lulu ever since.
Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts, and Carl Goetz provide eye-catching support for Brooks, each turning in roles of a lifetime in their own rights. Goetz, in particular reeks with a slimy, contestable charm as Lulu’s pimp/father-figure Schigolch, a man who doesn’t think twice about wringing all he can from his young meal-ticket.
The version of the film I saw was the newly remastered version put out by the always fantastic Criterion Collection. This version was no exception to their rule of providing only the highest quality films, restoration, remastering, and packaging. If you do get to see this film, I hope it is this version that you decide to watch. Rent it if you must, and buy it if you can, as the film comes with the usual rogues gallery of special features and a whole book full of essays on the film to boot.
I know very little about the rest of G.W. Pabst’s work, but now I’d really like to know more. So influential in the world of film was Pabst, that he even gets a shout out, and becomes more than a slight plot point in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (a phenomenal film in its own right. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and GO SEE THAT SHIT!) Needless to say, I will be hunting down more of this man’s work, eagerly hoping that Pandora’s Box wasn’t just a one shot wonder, or simply a fluke. Highly recommended!!