Pandora's Box Review
Lulu (Louise Brooks) is a young Berlin woman, free spirited and without a care in the world. She regularly sees Dr. Ludwig Schoen (Fritz Kortner) who is the owner of huge newspaper firm and who is besotted with the girl. After getting wed Lulu soon tires of the doctor and after a verbal showdown she promptly shoots him. Fleeing to Paris with Dr. Schoen’s son Alwa and his friend she soon runs into trouble once more and plans another escape but her destination to London will be her last stop.
Frank Wedekind's play, "Die Büchse der Pandora" was adapted for the big screen in 1928 by German director, G.W. Pabst who capitalised on the tale's controversial scenario by showing no restraint for what was and still is a powerful film that tackles several taboo areas and combines some compelling performances from its notable cast, one of whom was quite a surprise.
Louise Brooks had started out fairly young in her acting career, being just 19 when she took a small role in Herbert Brenon's The Street of Forgotten Men. Since that time she had worked on several other films for Paramount in the United States, of which her most memorable to my mind was that of Clara in 1926's The Show Off. She also became widely photographed and publicised for her nude exhibitionism that further enhanced her popularity, adding to the fact that she was a professionally trained dancer, a skill that aided her throughout her acting career. No matter the size of the part she played she always exhibited an exuberant energy, matched by her stunning looks that ultimately caught the attention of Pabst, who needed a young actress of her like to portray the complex Lulu. At this point her career had hardly been legendary but that soon changed when she flew to Germany and took on the role that would make her internationally renowned.
75 years after its debut it is still clear as to why the film caused such a social upheaval, what with its subjects of lesbianism, promiscuity, prostitution and so forth; Pandora's Box opened them to the world in a free manner, only for them to be discarded again for years afterward. Whatever the case it was clear in 1929 that audiences were not quite ready for this change in cinema, no matter how important it was.
It is interesting to note Louise Brooks in a defining role that saw her become affectionately known as Lulu throughout her career, partially because of her suitably matched looks and personality but also the fact that she worked in a foreign country where being directed is evidently a little tougher for her due to the obvious language barrier. As such there are times when she looks for help; several moments off stage or to the camera her eye wanders, which is charming in itself and with the adoring Pabst by her side the relationship ends up working well. Louise Brooks had an ability to easily adapt to a situation; anytime when she isn't sure about certain scenes she instantly uses her sexuality by a means of diverting attention - quite a remarkable and self aware knowledge of her own onscreen power. Brooks would do this again for her role in Pabst's next film, Diary of a Lost Girl which would be the second and final time that she and Pabst would work together.
G.W. Pabst also shows a great turnaround for this era in that the women he chooses to depict are often stronger willed than the men. It's a subject that has long interested the man, which explains why he delves further into the female psyche and ever curiously yet subtly introduces different flavours to this and his subsequent film with Brooks. The character of Lulu is definitely an engaging one and the centrepiece to his film, but throughout his keen eye wanders and he makes sure to include a couple of additional scenes with characters that do well to raise eyebrows. In addition his male characters are rather well fleshed out and performed brilliantly, not least of which is Gustav Diese's portrayal of Jack the Ripper (thought never referred to as), who manages to create a believable and haunted man, who is willing to share his human side with Lulu for just a brief moment.
While toward the final act the courtroom scenes aren't quite so polished and lack a deeper emotional impact it is during the film's final act itself where things begin to take their inevitable and haunting turn, as Lulu must contemplate over her current situation and do what she feels is right in order to look after her friends. Forcing herself to go back to the life she had momentarily escaped she sets herself up for a tragic end, but it is through this selfless act that she finds redemption.
Pabst shows here his understanding approach to the material and crafts the final moments of the film beautifully, allowing the sympathy for Lulu to seep in, for while she always had a pure heart she was mislead in life and forced to live one than could be considered undesirable, but she enjoyed it all the same. It is Lulu's lust for life that ends up shining and it's that lust that ultimately drives home a smaller message to which Pabst succeeds in capturing and adding another angle to the tale.
Second Sight specially commissioned a further restoration for the film and presents it here in its entirety.
Pandora's Box looks extremely good for its age. It isn't perfect by any means, showing a lot of wear and tear but Second Sight has done a fine job in transferring it to DVD, however there is a noticeable amount of compression artefacts. The transfer shows a slight amount of blockyness on larger areas mixed with certain light sources for night shots. Aside from this the picture is sharp and detailed enough with soft wider shots. Grey scale and black levels are rich becoming equally important for the film's final moments when things become much darker in terms of tone.
The film is accompanied by Peer Rabin's dark and at times playful score that perfectly captures the film's essence and matches its emotional baggage scene for scene without being too over the top, at times it signifies danger harshly which may feel like the score is somewhat forced upon the viewer as the performances alone convey enough of that sense, but overall it is a good marriage with the visuals.
There are two inter-title options: English and German. These have been newly created for the DVD format and are computer generated. The titles are easy to read, with the only thing going against them being a split second in timing. What I mean by that is when viewing the English titles you will notice the German titles before they switch to English. This may not bother many viewers but it is worth pointing out, despite the fact it happens so quickly.
Looking for Lulu
The extras may be light on the disc but this documentary more than makes up for things. Running for 60-minutes Shirley MacLaine narrates this critically acclaimed production about the life and times of Louise Brooks, from her upbringing and rise to stardom to her fall from grace and then a revival in later years. The life of Brooks is filled with both tragedy and happiness and this documentary pays a respectful look at the women who captured the attention of millions, including some rare footage of an interview held with her in 1976, which offers some frank comments. Colleagues, close friends and family members pay tribute to her and recall fine moments from her life, and in all anyone considering themselves a fan of Louise Brooks should seek this out as it offers an intriguing tale of a life in the time.
G.W. Pabst never had it better than when he was working with Louise Brooks. Their natural pairing ensured success through two films. This first collaboration is a great achievement, harmonized by strong performances and wonderful lighting and direction, with an overall foreboding sense of morality.
It might not have been quite so realised at the time but Pandora's Box significantly paved the way for how films would later tackle certain subjects and unsurprisingly it still remains as being largely unequalled.