Having already seen a handful of Louise Brooks movies it now seems strange that I have only just got around to watching her most iconic Pandora’s Box but as with so many others, silent cinema has been a blind spot for me for a long time. It is a sad fact that most people I know have no idea who Louise Brooks was, those that have heard of her know little beyond her iconic haircut. With the renewed interest in silent cinema after the success of The Artist I can only hope that more people people discover Brooks’ movies. I have certainly seen more silent films in the last couple of years than at any time since I was a student.
Based on two plays by German playwright Frank Wedekind; Erdgeist (Earth Spirit, 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904) and written/directed by Austrian filmmaker Georg Wilhelm Pabst. Brooks plays Lulu a former dancer and mistress of wealthy middle-aged newspaper publisher, Dr. Ludwig Schön (Fritz Kortner). Schön announces that that he is going to marry Charlotte von Zarnikow (Daisy D’ora). Lulu agrees to perform in a musical production produced by Schön’s son Alwa (Francis Lederer). Schön brings Charlotte to a performance where she walks in on Schön and Lulu embracing in a store cupboard, she breaks of the engagement. Schön then agrees to marry Lulu. Events at the wedding that a series of events resulting in a downward spiral for Lulu and those around her.
I’m glad that I didn’t see the movie in the early 90’s when I first saw Brooks’ other seminal movie Beggars of Life, as it would have been a very different film to the I have just watched. When the film first came out there were different versions shown in different territories. By changing the dialogue cards, the relationship between the characters was changed. some versions also included an unconvincing but redemptive happy ending. The 131 minute version I saw is believed to be the closest to the directors original.
Silent cinema can be a little alien to modern audiences, Pandora’s Box is surprisingly accessible. The acting although within the traditions of silent movies is more naturalistic than you would expect. Brooks’ performance is expressive and alluring. The character is often described as a femme fatale, but she often comes across as too innocent for this moniker. More reminiscent of the Jessica Rabbit line “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” She isn’t looking to hurt others, she just wants a good time and doesn’t think about the consequences of her actions or allure. This combination of innocence and sexuality is something that no one before or since has been able to portray like Brooks. It could have all been so different, director Georg Wilhelm Pabst nearly cast Marlene Dietrich to star, that would have made a very different film. Brooks remains an alluring and engrossing screen presence, it is a tragedy of cinema that she didn’t have more great parts.
The appeal of the film is more than just its star. The themes of the carefully and cleverly constructed story are classic, they had been seen in theatre for years and would become a mainstay for cinema for a generation or more. The photography is brilliant making the film look fantastic. Unlike so many movies of the time that look like they have failed to move on from their theatre origins use a small number of similar looking sets, Pandora’s Box makes use of different styles depending on the setting and tome of the scene. The Berlin apartment sequences at the start of the movie are bright sharp. As the film gets progressively darker, the images do too, culminating in the oblique angles and long shadows of German Expressionism. Despite these dark tones and themes the film isn’t without humour, there are many funny moments. Ahead of its time in so many ways, it is often quoted that Countess Anna Escheats (Alice Roberts) is considered by historians to be cinema’s first lesbian character.
I am sometimes hesitant to recommend silent films to people who aren’t used to watching them. A little like foreign language films, if not attuned to the style you may struggle to get into the rhythms of the movie. Pandora’s Box, however is probably accessible to far more film fans than other silent films.