Die Buchse Der Pandora (AKA: Pandora’s Box) (1929)

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!!

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Der Himmel Uber Berlin (AKA: Wings of Desire) (1987)

Der Himmel Uber Berlin (AKA: Wings of Desire) – 1987

Director – Wim Wenders

Starring – Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, and Peter Falk

Tackling the spiritual subject of the lives of Angels and their influence on the lives of human beings, Wings of Desire follows  Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz) as he becomes fascinated with and eventually falls in love with a young trapeze artist (Marion Played by Solveig Dommartin) performing in West Berlin (pre-fall of the Berlin Wall).  The film aspires to much more than simplistic confirmation of faith or belief.  Instead, Wim Wenders struggles with the ideas of how his angel characters experience the world while avoiding the cliché of making them infallible beings of infinite grace and experience.

Firstly, if the story seems familiar, you might be thinking of the far inferior re-make, City of Angels, starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan.  If you haven’t seen the re-make, congratulations, if you have, at least it can only go up hill by watching this film after the fact.  The story follows an angel named Damiel who, along with his fellow angel Cassiel, roams the city following humans through all stages of their daily and life-changing experiences.  As the story progresses, Damiel expresses his desire to experience the things that people do everyday (food, love, human contact, tactile sensations, pain, smells, etc…), and his ultimate desire to leave his angelic status behind and become human.

The look of the film mirrors the pacing and the story in-so-much-as it is very lyrical and flowing.  The world of the angels is very stark, and contrasty, filmed entirely in a silky black and white.  Every crag and wrinkle of the people that they follow are visible, just as it would appear to an omnipresent, all-seeing angel.  The human world, however, is filmed in lush, saturated color.  Every joy, and mood, and taste, and experience of the human condition is on display visually, contrasted with the stark black and white world of absolutes.  The passion and experience that these visuals convey, represent the question that Damiel is wrestling with throughout the entire movie.  Is a life of passion, and emotion more satisfying than a life of eternal order, and knowledge, when each is separated from the other.  Is there a halfway point between the two worlds, and if so, do the benefits of one out-weigh the other.

I have to say that I didn’t really notice the music in this film, with the exception of the very obvious concert scene featuring Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and that isn’t necessarily bad, it just is.  Overall the film seemed very quiet and relied heavily on the weight of silence and the power of dialogue.  This means that you don’t get the standard emotional swell of music when you are supposed to feel happy, or sad, or angry.  Since you still feel these emotions, it is clear that despite the absence of these musical cues, the movie is strong enough to get across its points without them.

One other element that may seem familiar is the lead actor, Bruno Ganz.  If he seems familiar, it might be because he is a famous face in modern German cinema, most famously for playing Hitler in the film Downfall.  His power as an actor is obvious when you watch him on-screen.  For a film that is so visually striking as this one, when you find yourself trying to choose whether to look at the beautiful scenery or keeping your eye on the main actor, you know that you’re watching a dynamic performer.  The actor (or actress if you prefer) who plays Marion, Solveig Dommartin, imbues the role with a luminosity that makes you believe an angel might choose a mortal life.  Her wistful carefree nature provides the romance of the story, while ironically it is Ganz who provides the audience with necessary grounding and realism.

Wings of Desire is a slow-paced film, one that relishes the opportunity to show the characters, situations, and the world that it’s about, but it is very worth the time and energy spent watching it.  Wim Wender’s visual poem to the city of Berlin is a definite influence on indie movement in the films of the early nineties, and on into the 2000s and beyond.

Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes (AKA: Aguirre, The Wrath of God) (1972)

AguirreTheWrathOfGod

Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes (AKA: Aguirre, The Wrath of God) – 1972

Director – Werner Herzog

Starring – Klaus Kinski, Del Negro, and Peter Berling

So the story goes, that when actor Klaus Kinski announced that he was going to quit and leave this film, director Werner Herzog threatened to shoot him dead and then turn the gun on himself.  This desperate, at-any-cost sentiment is mirrored in the story and it perfectly outlines the over-all tone of this film.

The story, set in the 16th century, follows an army of conquistador’s as they search for El Dorado, the lost city of gold.  The excursion is made up of hundreds of people, spaniards, courtly ladies, indians slaves, and a monk from whom we are getting the narration of the story.  As the party goes further and further into the jungle, they are whittled down by disease, attack from the native peoples, and greed.

The story itself isn’t very developed, only the destination, and their utter disregard for the people and culture that they need to step on to get to it.  What we get instead is a slow burn of a character study.  It is through observation that we learn about the mindset and goals of our main characters, and truthfully this tells us more than narration or exposition ever could.  Klaus Kinski as the titular character Don Lope de Aguirre, very much manages to embody this sort of force of nature rather than a realistic human being.  More interested in notoriety than in riches, or land, his desire seems to be the spreading of his name and reputation.  Despite this desire for this kind of attention he seems to have no interest in being a leader of men.  After engineering the downfall of their leader, he nominates a new man to be their “emperor”, and uses intimidation to get the remainder of his group to go along.

Nature plays a large part in this story, so much so that it becomes a character in and of itself.  It always surrounds the hapless men during their quest, and when they make a mis-step, nature is there to punish them for their folly.  From a raging river, to oppressive sunshine,  from overgrown jungles, to the native peoples living in the shadows of the jungle, Aguirre, The Wrath of God cronicles the dismantling of “civilization”.

This characters in this film are very much on a singular path to ruination, and death, and the structure and pacing are geared to allow the audience a chance to see it first hand.  The slow decent into madness is carried in the over all atmosphere of this film.  Nothing is positive, and there is no mistake what will happen by the end.  Herzog and Kinski, together, present a feeling of un-ease, and despair that lasts for an hour and a half.  In case I haven’t outlined it enough so far, this might not be the best movie for a first date.  Maybe wait for the third date.