DIE BÜCHSE DER PANDORA (1929)

  • Director: G.W. Pabst
  • Writers: G.W. Pabst and Ladislaus Vajda, based on the stage play by Frank Wedekind
  • Starring: Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer, Carl Goetz, Alice Roberts, Fritz Kortner, and Gustav Diessl
  • Accolades: Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#29)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), stream with subscription on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel

Lovers of early cinema often refer to movies as “pre-code,” meaning that they were produced before Hollywood’s production code, and widespread censorship of films in general, had become more of a thing. In the very early days of movies, they were still figuring out what they were and weren’t supposed to talk about, leading to lots of scenes and subject matter that modern viewers might find startling to see in an “old movie.” Perhaps the most pre-code of pre-code movies is Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box). It features a heroine who is pretty clearly a prostitute, who gets what she wants by seducing men (one of whom begs her to kill herself so he is no longer tempted by her), whose suitors include one woman who is very clearly a lesbian, and who ends up (spoilers) getting murdered by Jack the Ripper.

All of this would not render the movie any more than a curiosity if it were not for magnetic, iconic central performance by Louise Brooks. Brooks took the role in this German silent film sort of out of desperation. She had been a mid-level star for Paramount the past few years, but the studio head refused her request for a raise and she quit on the spot. Literally on her way out of the boss’ office, Brooks was handed a telegram from Germany asking her to star in a new movie based on a popular German play, and the rest was history. Her performance was totally naturalistic, without the makeup and artifice that date many of her contemporaries. Her distinctive, helmet-esque hairstyle remains instantly recognizable. At first, even in Germany her films were relatively little known, but with the help of film archivist keeping a few copies and re-introducing them a few decades later, she was recognized retroactively as an icon. One popular French critic famously pronounced at a 1950s symposium, with Brooks in attendance, “There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks!” Brooks was reportedly highly amused, as Garbo and Dietrich were among her rumored lovers.

Brooks’ legacy today stems primarily from the two German films, including Die Büchse der Pandora, that she made after burning all her Hollywood bridges. She burned brightly but quickly, so to speak. In addition to the movie, I checked out a one hour documentary on Brooks’ life that accompanies this film on Criterion Channel. One historian commented, “she was way too wild in a business that was way too tame.” She was kicked out of the Algonquin Hotel in New York at 18 for “promiscuity,” and was widely known to be a drunk throughout her life. She posed frequently for nude photographs decades before Marilyn Monroe ignited a scandal. One of her daughters was interviewed in the documentary and commented on her mother writing to congressmen to tell them that they should ban valium on the grounds that it numbed the effects of masturbation, which she considered “the highest form of human art.” That made me literally LOL, I’ll admit it. She was reportedly so difficult to work with that she kept having to move on from wherever she was after one or two movies, and before long couldn’t get any jobs at all. But later in life she became a respected author and film historian in her own right, particularly of the silent era.

The plot of Die Büchse der Pandora was based on a play popular in Weimar Germany at the time, and the domestic reaction at the time was mostly based on whether the movie was a faithful adaptation thereof (it was not). But the movie takes a plot that does not sound like a good movie and makes it into one. Her character, Lulu, is the subject of lust of both a father (Fritz Kortner) and son (Francis Lederer), including the son’s fiancee (Daisy D’Ora) finding her man locked in an embrace with Lulu in her dressing room. Also very clearly interested in Lulu is the Countess Augusta Deschwitz (Alice Roberts), who dresses in men’s suits and eagerly asks Lulu to dance the tango. Lulu seems not uninterested, though she traipses effortlessly through the whole movie, oblivious to the chaos she leaves in her wake.

Lulu is eventually marries the son, but then shoots the father in order to keep him from assaulting her. She is convicted of murder (where the prosecutor gives us a metaphor about Pandora unleashing the evils of the world, in case we weren’t getting the title), but with the help of the Countess, she and the son escape. This leads to an increasing series of disasters where Lulu is almost sold into slavery in Egypt, lives on a sort of casino boat for a while, and ends up in a rundown turret apartment in London, unwittingly soliciting Jack the Ripper as a prostitute.

That any of this works is a testament to Brooks’ performance, which was derided at the time for being “too natural,” the exact same reason people today like it so much. It is also a testament to the atmospheric direction of G.W. Pabst, who had refused to cast the much more famous Marlene Dietrich as Lulu because he thought she was too “worldly” for the part. Pabst was perhaps the most popular director of the Weimar era, a freewheeling one in an arts sense. He is today considered notable for his interest in strong female roles, especially in the implications of sexual politics. In America, the movies of his you’re most likely to see are the two with Brooks, but in Germany he remains considered one of the masters.

Die Büchse der Pandora has a strange place in film history because it seems almost unmoored from its time. It is a silent movie that seems made entirely for modern audiences, with a star-making central performance that nobody would actually seem ready to appreciate for decades. But sometimes movies are just interesting for themselves, not for their specific place in history, and the magic of Louise Brooks is that there doesn’t seem to be that gulf of history between her and the viewer. Her brand of crazy has shone through the screen for a century at this point.

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