Director: Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Screenplay: Ladislaus Vajda, Georg Wilhelm Pabst (uncredited), Joseph Fleisler (titles – uncredited)
Based on Plays by: Frank Wedekind
Starring: Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Francis Lederer, Carl Goetz, Krafft-Raschig, Alice Roberts, Daisy D’Ora
Running Time: 133 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (a.k.a. Die Büchse der Pandora) didn’t make much of an impact on its original release, critically or commercially, but twenty-odd years later, in the mid-50s, it began to finally get the respect it deserves. That respect has only grown over time and now the film is considered by many to be among the best of the silent era. In fact, it’s the only Pabst film that made it into Sight and Sound’s recent prestigious ‘Greatest Films of All Time’ list (albeit close to the end of the full 250-title list).
Due to its then-racy subject matter, the film was butchered in most territories and in often different ways. As such, Pandora’s Box has long been difficult to see in its entirety. Recently though, the film has been remastered and recompiled to provide the most complete version possible. Eureka have got their hands on this new print and are releasing the film on Blu-ray in a handsome limited edition set. I got hold of a copy and my thoughts follow.
The film is based on Frank Wedekind’s plays Erdgeist (‘Earth Spirit’, 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (‘Pandora’s Box’, 1904). It tells the tragic story of Lulu (Louise Brooks), a seductive free spirit, unconstrained by social conventions or morality. She dances in nightclubs, flirts with men, and takes lovers without hesitation.
At the start of the film, Lulu is the mistress of Dr. Ludwig Schön (Fritz Kortner), a wealthy newspaper publisher. Schön is due to marry Charlotte von Zarnikow (Daisy D’Ora), the daughter of the Minister of the Interior, but he lusts for Lulu and their affair is common knowledge.
To keep Lulu close but busy enough not to meddle with his impending marriage, Schön arranges for her to take the lead part in a revue that his son, Alwa (Francis Lederer) is putting on. Lulu is initially delighted by this but is disgusted when Schön brings his fiancée to the opening night. Lulu refuses to go on stage, so Schön is called over to try to talk her around. This, instead, leads to him being caught in a passionate embrace with his mistress. His proposed marriage to Charlotte is therefore called off and Schön is ‘forced’ to marry Lulu instead.
On their wedding night, however, Schön grows furious about Lulu’s free-spirited behaviour among his high-brow friends and attempts to kill her. This backfires though, when Lulu accidentally kills Schön instead.
Lulu is arrested for Schön’s murder but manages to escape during the trial, aided by her associates Schigolch (Carl Goetz) and Rodrigo Quast (Krafft-Raschig). She then goes on the run with Alwa, who professes his love for her. Their lives as fugitives, however, grow increasingly bleak.
Pabst originally wanted Brigitte Helm to play Lulu but the producers at UFA wouldn’t allow it. There are some accounts of Marlene Dietrich being up for the role too. However, after seeing the then little-known Louise Brooks in Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port, Pabst asked Paramount to loan her out for Pandora’s Box. They rejected his repeated offers, without even consulting Brooks.
However, after Paramount head B. P. Schulberg told Brooks she could either stay on her old contract terms or leave, she decided to opt for the latter. Schulberg, at this point, finally told the actress about Pabst’s pleas and she headed to Berlin, despite having no knowledge of the German language or the director.
It ended up being one of the best pieces of casting in the history of cinema, with Brooks perfectly embodying the role (possibly aided by the fact her life and personality shared some similarities to those of Lulu’s). Her performance feels effortlessly natural, fizzes with sexuality and is utterly magnetic. She’s truly a sight to behold on screen.
Though Brooks tends to be the centre of attention when discussing Pandora’s Box, she isn’t the only reason to watch it. Pabst also puts together a visually stunning film that’s fluidly edited and vibrant. Most impressive are the busier sequences, which are remarkably well executed. The scenes backstage in the theatre are particularly mind-boggling in how effortlessly we rush through and around the cluttered space.
I’d be completely out of my depth if I started talking about the intriguing feminist aspects of the film but I will say it paints a remarkably progressive and deeply layered portrait of a complex woman. In the wrong hands, Lulu’s story could have been a simple, dated morality tale of sex being sinful and women seeking it needing to be punished. In Pabst’s film, Lulu isn’t a straight-up ice-queen vamp who cruelly seduces all the men around her. Yes, she’s sexy, alluring and far from shy around the opposite sex but there’s also a child-like innocence to her at times and she’s utterly charming. It’s impossible not to be drawn to her in the way the other characters are.
Indeed, Lulu is the most sympathetic character here, though she’s not a doe-eyed victim. She is strong and knows how to use her sexuality to get what she wants. However, there’s also an innocence to her playful exuberance. The men, meanwhile, are painted as either cruel or useless and all largely self-serving. They treat Lulu as a commodity and they become her downfall, rather than her ‘uncouth’ behaviour.
There are some rather troubling and complex relationships going on here too. On top of the often abusive one between Lulu and Schön, you get the strange pairing of her and the slimy Schigolch. Initially, he’s referred to as her first ‘patron’ but, later in the film, she says he’s her father. Either way, they’re rather affectionate towards each other, despite Schigolch clearly exploiting Lulu for his own financial gain.
Another relationship which turned a few heads back when the film was released in the 20s is that between Lulu and Alwa’s friend, Gräfin Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). There’s little hiding the fact that she’s as infatuated with Lulu as the men in the film. She even dances with her in one scene, which crackles with sexual tension. This makes her character one of the earliest portrayals of a lesbian on film.
My only complaint is a minor one and it’s that I felt the film was a little longer than I’d have liked. My initial thrill waned as it went on, despite the quality never wavering. I’ve been struggling with sleep recently though, so my tiredness may have affected my attention.
Overall, however, it’s impossible to ignore how stunningly well-directed and performed the film is. There’s an awful lot to mine under the surface of the film too, so it’s one that will likely benefit from repeated viewings, despite the grim nature of the second half.
Pandora’s Box is out on 30th October on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. To create the most complete version of the film possible, the print had to be sourced from various dupes (the original negatives are sadly lost to time). As such, it’s not as sharp and pristine as some silent restorations but a stellar job has still been done on it. Damage and wear look relatively light and the various sources are well-matched.
Peer Raben’s lush orchestral score comes through beautifully too.
The Limited Edition Blu-ray includes:
– Limited Edition Box Set – 3000 Copies
– Limited Edition Hardcase featuring artwork by Tony Stella
– Limited Edition 60-Page Book featuring new writing on the film by critics Alexandra Heller Nicholas and Imogen Sara Smith, alongside archival stills and imagery
– 1080p HD presentation on Blu-ray from a definitive 2K digital restoration
– Optional English subtitles
– Orchestral Score by Peer Raben
– New audio commentary by critic Pamela Hutchinson
– New visual appreciation by author and critic Kat Ellinger
– New video essay by David Cairns
– New video essay by Fiona Watson
Pamela Hutchinson delivers an excellent commentary that balances production background and accounts with deep analysis, leaning largely towards the latter in the second half. It’s required viewing/listening to best appreciate the film’s many qualities.
Fiona Watson talks about the life of Louise Brooks in her piece. It’s an eye-opening account, illustrated by plenty of archive photos and some film clips.
David Cairns’ piece is excellent too, analysing the film in depth. In particular, it discusses why it ends in the way it does. As such, you should watch this after the film.
Kat Ellinger discusses how Pandora’s Box explored the concept of the ‘new woman’ that emerged in the 20s. She provides an intriguing analysis of the Lulu character and explores how the film presents such a fascinating and progressive central female character.
There’s also a short piece on the restoration process. It helps you appreciate the difficult job the team had to make the film presentable and how innovative some of their work was.
In the booklet, which is lengthier than usual, Imogen Sara Smith provides an extensive essay on Brooks. Though the actress’ story is told in one of the video extras, it is nice to have it on paper. Plus, she includes some details previously missed. Alexandra Heller Nicholas discusses the different ways the film’s ending can be read in her essay, as well as how Pandora’s Box might sit within the melodrama genre.
Overall then, Eureka have compiled an extensive package for a true classic of the silent age. As such, it’s thoroughly recommended.