Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sometime in the 1970s I purchased a book of the Pandora's Box film script because I liked the photo of Louise Brooks on the cover, a full length profile of her in an amazing theatrical gown. (see below) The cover illustration was given a silvery texture. The script inside was difficult to read but the images of Louise Brooks as Lulu were amazing. Fifty years later, Brooks seemed alive and real. The photos of other German stars from the 1920s, even those of Dietrich, looked by comparison like something from the 19th century. In 1978 L.A.'s PBS affiliate KCET showed Pandora's Box on a Sunday afternoon. It seemed like an artifact from a lost civilization and its morbid tale of sex and death spoke directly to me. After thirty more years of exposure to film culture G.W. Pabst's movie no longer seems quite so remote nor so 'impossible,' but it's still a dazzler. Thanks to the Munich Film Museum & Criterion, it's also in a condition that gives a suggestion of its original 'silvery' luster.
Pandora's Box is something that I had always hoped would come out on a decent DVD version, one that wasn't too contrasty or dark, and that didn't hop in the film gate. I taped it a couple of times from the old "Z" Channel and will still hang onto those copies for nostalgia's sake -- and their odd soundtrack -- but for this pair of eager eyes Criterion's offering is perhaps the most coveted disc of the year ... and it's been a good year.
Lulu is a kept woman living in a fancy apartment maintained by Dr. Peter Schön (Fritz Kortner) a respected publisher. Schön arrives to tell her that he's engaged to marry the daughter of a politician. Lulu almost has Schön seduced when he discovers a ragged little man Schigolch (Carl Goetz) hiding on the balcony; Lulu makes light of the moment and introduces Schigolch as her 'first patron.' Peter's son Alwa (Franz Lederer) is producing a musical play and is delighted when Peter advises him to make Lulu the star: both Alwa and the costume designer Countess Anna Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) have crushes on Lulu. Lulu is distracted by the play until Schön brings his fiancée to the premiere. The actress throws a fit and refuses to go on, and succeeds in creating a love scene with Schön in a wardrobe room -- a spectacle witnessed by Alwa and the bride-to-be. With his respectable marriage ruined, Peter Schön marries Lulu. Her friends Schigolz and trapeze artist Rodrigo Quast (Krafft-Raschig) celebrate with the help in the kitchen and then go to put flowers on the wedding bed. Schön chases them out with a gun, and then humiliated, tells Lulu to take the gun and kill herself. They struggle with the gun ...
No synopsis can communicate the range of emotions that come with Pandora's Box. What begins as a teasingly sexy story about a universally desired showgirl, transforms into as deep a look at human desire that the films have yet come up with. Other movie sirens weave spells of glamour -- Dietrich, Hayworth, Kim Novak -- but Louise brooks embodies a more believable flesh-and-blood allure. The actress was as wanton and as devil-may-care as they come, and apparently one of those women that present a chemical challenge to every male they encounter. Lulu is much more childlike and innocent than Louise but shares the same basic quality -- she likes men, enjoys being happy, and isn't interested in what anyone thinks of her. Lulu doesn't give a damn that the meter reader concludes that she's a high-class prostitute and sees nothing wrong with consorting with both the high-toned Peter Schön and the decrepit beggar Schigolch. A fugitive from justice, she reads fashion magazines at the scene of the crime, and when fleeing on a train returns the overtures of a suspicious gentleman who recognizes her photo from the newspaper.
G.W. Pabst is known for naturalistic and socially conscious movies like The Joyless Street and Kameradschaft, and only sections of Pandora's Box contain touches of the earlier visual expressionism. The backstage sequence hews more toward the dizzying camera-tricks of Varieté and the final scene mixes in a strong jolt of Freudian psychology. The original plays were reportedly much more moralistic, imagining the seductress Lulu as a deadly lure destroying any man to cross her path. Pabst's interpretation is more like reality -- Lulu is no vamp but instead an object of desire that brings out the basic nature of the men she touches. Peter Schön foolishly thinks he can possess and control Lulu, and his son Alwa sees in her his ticket to manhood. Rodrigo Quast and the Countess Geschwitz want to have sex with her. The villains want to blackmail Lulu into sexual slavery. Only the filthy old man Schigolch understands her for what she is. When the story begins we're unsure of their exact relationship and wonder if the old man was once her lover or her pimp. Schigolch can intuit when it's time for Lulu to walk the streets. Society would blame Lulu for everything that happens, but Pandora's Box shows that she's actually a victim of the desires of others.
The movie is constructed in nine or ten acts introduced by inter-title cards. American 16mm copies removed these cards, breaking up the film's continuity and giving the impression that scenes were missing. In this particular movie Pabst is concerned with atmosphere and performance and blocks his scenes for maximum impact. Quick pans emphasize the way Lulu flies excitedly into rooms. Schön crowds out Lulu's image in her own mirror and then corners her against a wall, blotting out most of the frame.
Some scenes are more conventional in filming and structure, like the trial and much of the gambling boat sequence. The intermingled subplots on the gambling boat are especially straightforward, with an abundance of dialogue inter-titles. The London sequence returns to visual storytelling and is a triumph of naturalist-expressionist filmmaking. Alwa, Lulu and Schigolch starve and freeze in a drafty attic room. Lulu is a ragged mess but prepares herself to go out and earn some money. Down in the street, an angelic Salvation Army volunteer offers kind words and a sprig of mistletoe to a tall, forlorn stranger (Gustav Diessel) that we've seen glaring at a poster warning about a savage sex killer. The stranger meets Lulu on the street...
Pandora's Box finishes with a profound statement about mercy, goodwill and kindness, all wrapped up in a perverse horror far more effective than an Italian Giallo. The Jack the Ripper character experiences a few minutes of blessed warmth and affection before reverting to his violent obsession. Schigolch survives as he always has, lucking into a free Christmas pudding in a pub, and perhaps finding a lady-friend. The haunted, guilty Alwa suffers and agonizes over his own powerlessness to keep Lulu as his own. But he's spared knowledge of the worst, and may find his way out of his personal horror ... let's hope that he catches up with that soulful, caring Salvation Army volunteer.
Most remarkably, the film's moral heroine is the Countess Geschwitz. Going against her nature, she practically throws her life away in a selfless gesture to save Lulu. Movies today are still giving gay characters phony PC motivations that Pandora's Box puts to shame.
Lulu's fate remains an almost mystical question. She's more than an innocent; she's a contradiction of a morally based life. Lulu is the only one who doesn't need a philosophy to justify her existence, who accepts the world and the people in it without judgment. She fears and suffers but endures, and still has the ability to give. When she perishes, she never really knows what hit her, or what it all means. She's not unlike the innocent burro of Bresson's au hasard, Balthazar. The only difference is that society at large won't blame the burro for corrupting the world.
Criterion's DVD of Pandora's Box is a painstaking archival reconstruction that minimizes but cannot eliminate the flaws of transfer elements. The film looks far better than any earlier incarnation this viewer has seen. 1) It's more complete. A few additions here and there flesh out broken continuity; in some cases they're from inferior-quality dupes but the film comes off as looking far more intact than before. Only a couple of jump cuts remain across missing frames. 2) The quality is the best. The picture has been transferred from archival dupe material, as opposed to a dupe of what one archive has to offer. The picture is sharper and many scenes recover that 'dusty grayscale' look of German silents. In close-ups of Lulu we can finally see details like glints on her lips and teeth previously obscured by contrast. The flaws remaining are a subtle fluctuating density in many scenes, and some 'focus popping' in a few others. The images are by no means pristine, but they're still better than most of us have seen. 3) It's cleaned up. The image has many fine scratches that cannot be removed but the "thousands of instances of dirt" etc. noted in Criterion clean-up descriptions are indeed missing. 4) The image is stable. Shrunken and jittery material has been replaced with better elements or straightened out. The picture jumps less at splice points. 5) Original inter-titles. The surprisingly plain-wrap original German title designs are intact, including the Act markers. English subtitles are optional. And 6) The frame rate looks natural. My previous transfers seemed to be at 24fps, taking minutes off the film's running time and making many scenes look ridiculous, like Lulu's little 'Denishawn' dance for Schigolch in the first scene. In this transfer we no longer have to apologize for a too-fast pace.
Criterion producer Issa Clubb has solved the problem of what soundtrack to put on the film by offering four separate options. The first menu choice is "select the score." The Orchestral Score is "Gillian Anderson's approximation of what a European 'cinema palace' orchestra might have played." A Cabaret Score in the style of a Weimar-era cabaret is offered by composer Dimitar Pentchev. The Modern Orchestral Score is a contemporary take by composer Peer Raben, and Stephan Oliva presents an impressionistic Piano Improvisation as a fourth choice,. I was holding out for a Mexican Mariachi approach, but these four choices are certainly generous.
We get a heady taste of formalist criticism in the commentary by Thomas Eisaesser and Mary Ann Doane. My personal aversion to the word 'semiotic' takes me back to anguished times in Critical Studies back at UCLA, where some of the progressive critical literature seemed to bear no relationship to the films I was watching. Ms. Doane concludes that Pabst purposely has Lulu and Peter Schön not look directly at each other across cuts to communicate a dislocation in their relationship. It's pretty clear to this viewer that the director simply didn't care much about visual continuity and eye-lines. Pabst often crosses the (omigosh!) 180° line with his screen direction, even cutting together people looking in the same direction so that their eye-lines don't seem to connect at all. And it isn't just in the sexually charged encounters mentioned by Ms. Doane -- it happens right off the top with Lulu and the meter reader, and Lulu and Schigolch.
Ms. Doane also goes into repeated interpretations of Pabst's use of 'the gaze': The sensual gaze, the erotic gaze. In silent movies this is hardly a mystery, nor anything special. Silent pictures wishing to avoid endless inter-titles always concentrated on actors' eyes for emotional connections, both to other characters and the audience. Any ordinary romance from any director in any country uses this principle. Pabst's scenes are erotically charged because we know what these characters mean to each other, and the device seems sophisticated because Pabst's character relationships are sophisticated.
The second disc contains two key filmed pieces on the legendary Louise Brooks. Looking for Lulu is the superb Turner Classic Movies bio on the star from 1998, by Hugh Munro Neeley. Less widely shown is Richard Leacock and Susan Steinberg Woll's 1984 Lulu in Berlin, a stunning once-in-a-lifetime interview with Ms. Brooks conducted in Rochester in 1971. The actress appears in an old housecoat over a nightgown with her hair pulled back and a bit of makeup on. What she has to say is priceless. Ms. Brooks has a near-total recall. It's almost chilling when she recites lyrics from an Argentine Tango that was played when she danced with Alice Roberts, forty-two years earlier.
Issa Club follows that revelatory piece of film with a new interview with the aged Richard Leacock, who explains how he got the interview and how Ms. Brooks behaved.
Michael Pabst, the son of the late director is also interviewed. He mentions an unpublished biography of his father's memoirs that we wish would see the light of day.
And finally, a still gallery. The wonderful still from the cover of that old book 1 doesn't appear, and neither do any artwork designs for Pandora's Box posters or advertising material. We're told that the movie was in no way successful in 1928. Were people just not watching with the correct eyes? Or does it mean that some present-day film now being ignored and dismissed, will be revered as a monumental classic in 2080?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Pandora's Box rates:
Movie: Excellent +
Video: Good and excellent in comparison to previous available versions
Supplements: Commentary with Thomas Eisaesser and Mary Ann Doane, Docus Looking for Lulu and Lulu in Berlin, interviews with Richard Leacock and Michael Pabst; still gallery
Packaging: Plastic and card disc folder with 95-page booklet in card sleeve
Reviewed: November 19, 2006
1. The 'Classic Film Scripts' book is by Simon & Schuster from 1971; it's a German continuity script translated by Christopher Holme.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson