in Criterion Month

Pandora’s Box (1929)

Welcome to another Criterion Month! Over the next 31 days, we’ll be looking at the venerable home video/streaming company’s extensive film catalog, just a few months removed from the launch of the Criterion Channel. Looks like I’ll be responsible for reviewing a good chunk of the earlier films being talked about this month.

One of the fun things about doing Criterion Month in chronological order, is that you get to revisit the different eras and themes of the 20th century (and a little bit of the 21st). I’m sure in the past two Criterion Month’s we’ve talked about the impact of World War II and the effects it had not only on the film industry, but what types of “important” films were made after The Great War. We’ll be starting this month talking about a film made in the pre-WWII, Weimar Republic period of Germany, an era which gave birth to such silent classics as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. An era that was effectively ended by the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, and which forced its greatest artists to become scattered throughout the globe.

Of course, a film like Pandora’s Box is not interested in such geopolitical subject matter. Instead, it is more interested in the earthly desires of a vivacious young woman named Lulu (Louise Brooks). We first see her at the home of one of her several lovers, Dr. Schön (Fritz Korner), who Lulu seems to have a special affection for. However, she becomes distressed when Schön tells Lulu he’s to be engaged to a more “respectable” woman. Still, Lulu remains friends with Schön’s son Walwa (Francis Lederer), and thus Schön can’t seem to get rid of her. So he gets her a job as a dancer, which he supposes will give her something to put all of her pent up sexual energy into.

This doesn’t exactly go as planned, as Schön and Lulu end up making out backstage at one of her performances. Which eventually leads to Schön breaking up with his fiancee and becoming engaged to Lulu. Though, on the day of their wedding, Lulu is up to her old tricks, as we see her canoodling with some male admirers. This leads to an argument between Lulu and Schön, who threatens to kill himself, and after a brief struggle the gun goes off and departs Schön from his sad existence. After that, there’s a murder trial, which Lulu escapes, then becomes a fugitive, and eventually ends up destitute.

To put it mildly, Lulu attracts trouble like a magnet, though it’s hard to say if the film is supposed to be a parable about sinful women or not. After all, her lustful and immoral ways do lead to her life slowly unraveling. But really the only scene that overtly states that what Lulu is doing is wrong is when a lawyer prosecuting her says so when she is on trial for murder. Otherwise, director G.W. Pabst is careful not to paint Lulu as a whore, while the men in her life seem just as depraved and opportunistic.

Also, it’s hard to latch onto a clear takeaway from the film morally because it’s shot in such a visually stimulating, frenetic manner. This is one of those late-period silent movies that makes full use of film as a purely visual medium, as there always seems to be something energetic happening onscreen, while the editing is similarly busy. Which makes the film feel oddly exuberant in the face of its potentially finger-pointing subject matter. I’m still wrestling with whether that’s a good thing or not, since it does make the film a little muddy tonally. But, perhaps that’s a good thing when silent movies can often succumb to being a little one note.

The other thing that keeps the film from ever feeling too grim is Louise Brooks’ star-making performance as Lulu. The Kansas-born actress has a kind of naturalistic quality that I’ve rarely seen in silent movies, while her flapper bob hairstyle makes her feel both very of her time, but also a bit out of time. Considering the inherent allure of Lulu as a character, there’s a lot riding on Brooks’ charm, and she certainly exudes that by being alternately the “cool girl” and endlessly infuriating at the same time.

It’s always a curiosity to see films from the past that were considered sexually explicit in their time, since that’s a hard feat by today’s standards. Pandora’s Box, of course, is not an exception, since all of the boning is done off screen and not even mentioned overtly in the dialogue. And yet we still know distinctly “what kind of woman” Lulu is, and why the men (and even one of the women) around her are drawn to Lulu. It’s a movie that certainly goes places and tries a lot of daring things, perhaps not all effectively. Yet that’s all forgiven considering the film is over two hours long, silent, 90 years old, and still managed to hold my attention for more or less the entire duration. Yes, that’s a box worth opening.