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pandoras-box-1929-poster-1000x750SPOILER WARNING – this article contains spoilers for a ninety year old movie, and a three thousand year old myth – SPOILER WARNING

I think everyone knows the story of Pandora’s Box from Greek mythology.  Pandora  was created by various gods on the orders of Zeus to punish humanity after Prometheus stole the secret of fire.  She was given “a shameful mind and deceitful nature” and had the power to seduce and felt compelled to do so.  The gods gave Pandora a gift of a pithos (a jar, mistranslated as box a few thousand years later) containing all the evils of the world.  She could not resist the temptation, and opens the jar/box thus releasing evil on the world.  In some versions of the story, a dove remains representing hope (more on that later). Pandora

So why am I telling a well known story from around 8th centuries BC?  I have just watched G W Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece Pandora’s Box at the MAC in Birmingham, thanks to the BFI in what they describe as ” New 2K DCP of the 2009 restoration of Munich Film Museum’s definitive cut, with score by Peer Raben”.

For those who don’t know, Pandora’s Box tells of the rise and fall of desirable and seductive but naive young dancer Lulu (Louise Brooks). origonal poster

Both an artistic and technical masterpiece, the film draws on the contemporary (German) studio realism, and French (Impressionist) as well a recalling earlier Expressionism.  There are numerous standout scenes, the backstage at cabaret performance is a master class in editing.  But all this disappears into the shadow of the film’s star Louise Brooks, with her iconic haircut, hypnotic eyes and enchanting smile.  Made during the final death rattle of silent cinema, Pandora’s Box Premiered less than two years after The Jazz Singer (1927).  At 23 Brooks gives a career best performance, but like the silent movies she appeared in her time was up.  Her career was all but over two years later. lulu

Today’s screening started with a caption explaining that no known original negatives survive.  This definitive restoration is made up of three early prints.  This made me look into different versions of the film.

Wikipedia describe a French version: the film was significantly re-edited, making Alwa’s secretary and the countess become Lulu’s childhood friend. Lulu is found to be not guilty at her trial, and there is no Jack the Ripper character, as the film ends with Lulu joining the Salvation Army.

IMDB describes an American cut: the film was released in a heavily censored 90-minute version, with a happy ending. This ending – in which Lulu joins the Salvation Army – was so unconvincing that when the film played in New York, its distributors placed a disclaimer at the beginning, emphasizing that they were not responsible for the censorship forced upon them, and they apologized for what was termed “an added saccharine ending.pandoras box louise brooks Alice Roberts

The current version isn’t the first attempt to restore the film, an attempt was made in the 1980’s but was around 20 minutes shorter than the original version.  This could be due to missing scenes, or running it at 24 frames per second, not 20.

I have seen the film three times before, the first time was in the early 90’s, I think possibly the American cut described above.  It therefore came as something of a surprise on my next viewing when Jack The Ripper entered the story.  My most recent viewing came on DVD five or six years ago, the same or similar to the cut I saw today, it sounds like this version described on IMDB: A 133-minute version, distributed by Janus Films from Film Museum München, was broadcast in America on the IFC channel in 2006. It has an unidentified orchestral score, including a 2-minute overture at the start, and it listed the credits in German, some of which were translated into English. With German inter-titles and English subtitles. This version was released on a British Region 2 DVD).Louise Brooks Lulu

The final act sees Lulu living in destitute squalor in London with Alwa and Schigolch.  Encouraged by Schigolch, and with only the weakest of protest from Alwa, Lulu resorts to prostitution.  Her first customer is Jack the Ripper, who appears to be fighting a losing battle with his sanity and urge to kill.  As he climbs the stairs to Lulu’s lodgings we see Jack drop his knife, but in the closing scenes he spots a knife (in true Chekhov’s gun style we saw Lulu us it earlier).  This is the last we see of Jack or Lulu.  Why don’t we see her die?  Is it the sensibility of the time and the censors, or did she survive?  As long as we don’t see her die, there is hope! pandoras box lulu and jack

The only time I have discussed the film or its meaning at any length was after seeing it at university.  I went into the debate knowing less than nothing.  Those who hadn’t seen the film before knew nothing, I knew less than nothing as I went in thinking I knew the film having seen it a couple of years before, but the rug was pulled from beneath me as I saw a different version.  Others came with an agenda to argue; sexual, feminist, political, socio-political. It was suggested that Lulu was punished for her wicked ways, or at least her refusal to conform to social norms.  Or that she was punished for her sexual liberation and ambiguity.  Those that argued on both sides saw this as a positive and a negative, does the film condemn or lament her? I wouldn’t argue with any of these, but I read it a different way, as mentioned above, as a message of hope.  Lulu, made mistakes, and refused to conform, but no matter how low things get, there is always hope, if she could be the one woman who encountered and survived Jack the Ripper, she could survive.  To be fair and give context, to this argument, I was in a class where truth and reality came a distant second to how well you argued your point, and as a cock eighteen-year-old I revealed in disagreeing with everyone else in the room.  However, two further screenings and twenty years later, I still see a glimmer of hope. 

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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.  pandoras box poster

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.pandorasbox1

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.Pandora's Box

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.Louise Brooks  Pandora's Box

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.Louise and Alice Roberts

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.

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