Pandora's Box (Criterion Collection) Review
The following is a revised piece of work, which stems from my original review of the film in May 2005. I should also point out that there is some plot discussion which gives way to spoilers, so feel free to skip down to the technical portion of the 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 a huge newspaper firm and is totally besotted with the girl but who also happens to be engaged to a woman named Charlotte Adelaide (Daisy d’Ora). When he tries to end his relationship with Lulu she begins to play games with him and attempts to make him jealous with her new man Schigolch - her father - (Carl Goetz), who tells Lulu of a new stage show in which she could be a part of. Schoen decides that his son Alwa (Francis Lederer) would be much better for her, although they have always been strictly friends. But it isn't long before Schoen is caught in Lulu’s arm one night in the back of a theatre by his fiance, who immediately breaks off the wedding. As a result Schoen decides to marry Lulu and throw a huge party, but it is during that night that Alwa reveals his true feelings for Lulu and Schoen catches them in the middle of an embrace. With everything now up in the end Schoen hands Lulu a gun and orders her to take her own life. A struggle ensues and Schoen ends up with a bullet in him.
Lulu soon stands trial for murder and when she’s found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to five years imprisonment she’s saved by an elaborate prank, which sees her escape with Alwa and his friend Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). Their travels soon become nightmarish as a series of unfortunate events threaten to end their attempts at finding safe haven, prompting them to go from location to location. Eventually Lulu ends up in London, a destination that will prove to 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 at the time.
Louise Brooks had started out fairly young in her acting career, being just eighteen when she took a small, yet notable 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, including a personal fave of mine The Show Off in 1926, in which she played the bright and sunny Clara. She also became widely photographed and publicized for her nude exhibitionism, which further enhanced her popularity, adding to the fact that she was a professionally trained dancer - a skill that aided her throughout her acting career. But she was also a rebel and often refused to take stereotypical roles, preferring to seek a greater challenge and defy studio convention. No matter the size of the part she played she always exhibited an exuberant amount of energy, matched only by her stunning beauty and it was these characteristics, coupled with her feisty attitude that caught the attention of Pabst, who needed a young actress of her like to portray the complex Lulu. At this point in her career she had hardly attained legendary status, but all that was about to change when she upped and flew to Germany and took on the role that would make her an internationally renowned icon.
Seventy five years after its debut it is still clear as to why Pandora’s Box caused such controversy, what with its subjects of lesbianism, promiscuity, prostitution and so forth; the film opened them to the world in a free manner, only for them to be discarded again for years afterward. When it travelled overseas it became victim to extreme censorship, which removed many of these taboo areas by replacing the inter-titles and messing with the integrity of its characters. It also came under scrutiny for taking the original play and simplifying large portions of it. Still, it was a grand turnaround and somewhat revolutionary in the way that Pabst explored the sexes, with particular leanings toward his female subjects, who were notably depicted as being far stronger-willed than their male counterparts. With “subjects” being such an operative word for Pabst’s two hour feature - only going to illustrate and prove just how elaborate his goals were - he takes various points of interest and further opens up the film so that we see yet more interesting takes on the human condition; by delving deeper into the female psyche he curiously, yet subtly introduces a variety of flavours, which would later extend to his second feature with Brooks. Although the character of Lulu is most certainly an engaging and valid centrepiece, Pabst’s keen eye wanders throughout and in turn he creates several memorable moments that feature characters doing more than enough to raise eyebrows, all in a very “wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more” kind of manner. Women notwithstanding his male protagonists/antagonists are rather well fleshed out creatures who display various inadequacies in relation to Lulu. Fritz Kortner as Schoen puts in a marvellous performance but it’s Gustav Diessl’s magnificently ambiguous and conflicted portrayal of Jack the Ripper (whose moniker never rises to the occasion) that Pabst delivers a striking moment in the film, as the elusive killer opens up his heart for just a brief moment to an unsuspecting Lulu.
With that in mind it appears as if Pandora’s Box might be strictly focusing its attention on the negative fabrics of society. However, Pabst in fact provides a brilliant contrast between each of his characters and he draws some interesting parallels from the predicaments that each one faces. Above all it’s in its humanistic traits that Pandora’s Box succeeds in being a morally relevant and ultimately tragic tale infused with deceit, naivety and karmic retribution. Throughout the feature he takes stock of several key figures and slowly unravels their oft sordid personas; very few of his players are sympathetic creations and if anything most of them depict everything that’s wrong with the environment that they associate themselves with. Some are wealthy moguls with ferocious sexual appetites and others are kind hearted individuals who guide Lulu on her skewered path of righteousness. Nonetheless these are realistically drawn characters, and as such we’re pulled into a wholly believable set up, with even our central protagonist Lulu being far from the ideal heroine that we might otherwise expect her to be. But then that’s Pabst defying convention.
No, the point isn’t about setting up a brave young woman and having her beat the system, it’s in displaying every single one of her flaws and showing us that beauty and compassion goes way beyond outward appearances. We have no real reason to empathise or sympathise with Lulu until key events trigger us to think otherwise. Pabst strays a little when he indulges in several lengthy scenes, which admittedly slows down the pace here and there (unsurprisingly for a film of this length) and require an awful lot from Brooks but he soon rectifies the situation by placing the film’s emotional core nearer the final act, which is where things take their inevitable and haunting turn as Lulu must now face facts and contemplate over her situation and the burden that she’s become to others. Forcing herself to go back to the life that 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 of the material and crafts the final moments of the film beautifully, allowing our sympathy for Lulu to slowly seep in, for while she was always pure of heart she was mislead and forced to live a life considered to be undesirable, regardless of the fact that she was comfortable. Yet throughout most of the feature Lulu is far too zestful and innocent-like to even see the trail of destruction that she leaves behind. In saying that she is certainly something of an enigma; her ambiguous nature leaving audiences entranced by her presence. Pabst never shows her as being ashamed of what she does - instead she embraces it - but neither does he have her portrayed as being deliberately wicked. It could well be that his underlying message is that we perhaps shouldn’t be quite so conservative and judgemental unto others and their private inclusions - what will be will simply be. In the end it’s Lulu’s lust for life that ends up shining and it’s that lust which ultimately envelopes Pabst’s glorious vision.
It is interesting to note Louise Brooks in a defining role that saw her become affectionately known as Lulu throughout most of her life, partially because of her unmistakable and unrivalled looks, not to mention her unique and outspoken personality. It’s also due to the fact that she was working in a foreign country, tackling the language barrier with her director and playing a German, which sure enough upset many and attributed to its box-office failure. But there is little to worry about. At times her eye wanders off stage, 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 at anytime and even when she wasn't sure about certain scenes she would instantly uses her sexuality by 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 he would work together, signalling the end of a powerful partnership.
Strictly in terms of packaging this is, Without a doubt, the finest looking release I've seen from criterion. Here we have an elegant black and white card slip-cover which houses a digi-pack containing two discs and next to that an absolutely superb 96 page booklet. The main draws are “Opening Pandora’s Box” by J. Hoberman, which looks at the works of Pabst, followed by a reprint of the 1979 article “The Girl in the Black Helmet” by Kenneth Tynan, which explores the life of Brooks and finally Louise Brooks’s own “Pabst and Lulu” in which she describes her working relationship with the director. Accompanying these pieces are various stills and a few extra pages filled with technical and cast and crew information.
Criterion has created this new high-definition digital transfer from a 35mm composite print, provided by the Munich Film Museum/G.W. Pabst Collection, which is similar to Second Sight’s restored presentation of a few years ago. In comparison between the two DVD releases there isn’t a great amount of difference between them. Criterion has preserved the original ratio by using their familiar window-boxing trick and as such there is additional detail around the edge of the frame, which differs from scene to scene. In terms of actual clarity, again, it’s simply marginal. In fact Criterion has slightly boosted the contrast levels, which livens up white spots, but results in other areas lacking the detail that they should posses; I also suspect that this is why certain scratches and other marks appear slightly more reduced. There is also a spot of edge enhancement, which really should not be present here. Still, as you can see from the shots provided below (Criterion top, Second Sight bottom) there’s nothing significantly worth worrying about. It should also be noted that this edition mirrors its UK counterpart by presenting an interlaced image - a result from transferring the acquired negative to NTSC, which Criterion insists had to be done in order to preserve the original frame rate. With all that said there really is no reason not to pick up this newly released package.
In terms of audio presentation, while I find four different soundtracks to be a little excessive I can’t really complain over the variety that Criterion has offered for this release. It’s a veritable feast for different tastes and seeing as the original score is long lost then it’s nice to see some effort put in to offering different experiences. They certainly are different. First up, and most notably for audiophiles, we have a full orchestral score by Gillian Anderson, presented in 5.1 Surround, which works very well in highlighting various characters and situations, while trying to echo the period with its lively, poppy arrangements. Peer Raben’s modern orchestral score, which Second Sight used on their 2002 UK release is also available. This one is effective in catering for several of the film’s emotional scenes but tends to be a little too foreboding in setting up many of the darker moments, though it’s likely that the original score also got a little carried away with itself at times. A cabaret score provided by Dimitar Pentchev is by far the most curious addition to the set. In capturing a cabaret style of the silent era he naturally sets a tone for the film which wouldn’t have sounded foreign at all during its original release. While it’s undoubtedly not going to be everyone’s first choice it’s a pleasant offering. Finally we have Stephan Oliva’s piano improvisation. Using his Jazz roots to herald back to the silent era he explores its more expressive side and offers up a nice variation of contrasts between characters in order to capture them in the moment. It’s probably the more ambitious score of the four, for obvious reasons and it rounds off a solid collection. Raben, Pentchev and Oliva’s scores are all presented in 2.0 Dolby Stereo.
Audio Commentary by Professors Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Ann Doane
Elsaesser, author of “Weimar Cinema and After” and Doane, author of “Femme Fatale” serve up an absolutely fascinating commentary on Pandora’s Box. These are clearly two people who know what they’re talking about, who have painstakingly researched not only this feature but Brooks and Pabst in general and therefore can provide some remarkably insightful thoughts. Of course it’s very intellectual and often goes into considerable detail, pointing out various metaphorical devices and giving way to several contrasting factors. On occasion the pair clash over difference of opinion, although it’s kept to pleasant levels of debate, with both having a mutual respect for one another and backing up their opinions with their own personal findings. They also allow one another plenty of breathing space and as such the track never becomes cluttered; both participants seamlessly follow on from the other in order to extend the points being made. A solid working relationship between two very interesting speakers.
Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu
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 subsequent revival in popularity during the years later. The life of Brooks is filled with both tragedy and happiness and this documentary pays a respectful look at the woman who captured the attention of millions. Included is 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 childhood onward. In all anyone considering themselves a fan of Louise Brooks should seek this out as it offers an intriguing insight of a life in the time.
Lulu in Berlin (48.06)
This 1971 interview with Louise Brooks, conducted by Richard Leacock is reportedly one of the lengthiest recorded interview sessions ever done with the actress. Interspersed with footage from some of her films, various stills, and passages from her books (read by the director) Leacock sits back and takes in everything that Brooks has to offer; in fact she rarely pauses for breath to allow him to ask more about her past. Even in all those years later Brooks comes across as being very lively, quick to the chase, well spoken and opinionated, in addition to having a slight brashness about her. Being that this piece primarily concentrates on Brooks’ time spent in Germany we naturally have Brooks discuss her relationship with Pabst, which was clearly a wonderful one as she demonstrates. She talks about how he’d get the best performances out of her along with his unorthodox methods in directing and his fascination with women and how he created sexual situations. She also chats about various actors, some given lengthier discussion than others, as well as a few studios - including her thoughts on the greedy studio system - and the trouble which stemmed from working in Hollywood. Her departure from America is briefly touched upon, before the second call she received from Pabst when he wanted her to star in Diary of a Lost Girl. In all it’s a great opportunity to see and hear Brooks reflect on her heydays and she’s as fully alert as ever, never being a bore to listen to.
Accompanying this is a newly recorded interview for Criterion with Richard Leacock, which runs for just over five minutes. Here he fondly recalls setting up the interview in which Brooks originally attempted to prevent, which preceded a heated phone call, before their eventual meeting. Obviously we don’t get any great details here due to the length, but Leacock offers up some amusing anecdotes and personal opinions on Brooks.
Michael Pabst on his father, G.W. Pabst (34.27)
Michael Pabst talks openly about his father in this newly recorded interview, exclusively made for Criterion. Set into chapters, it begins with his early childhood recollections, in which he had a difficult time overcoming his father’s more dominant side which highlights a relationship that wasn’t quite so well grounded to begin with, but grew warmer as the years went on, while Michael interviewed his father regularly for a proposed, yet never published biography. From here Michael talks about his first exposure to cinema and subsequently seeing his father work and deal with the transitions from silent cinema to the talkies; he also discusses the extremities in Pabst’s work and their often experimental nature. When he movies on to his private life he chats about growing up in the family house, recalling more childhood memories and revealing how Pabst had originally met his mother shortly after being held in captivity in France. From here he also notes his close bond with his mother and the reactions of his father, with both equally vying for her affections. Michael goes on to talk about his father’s psychological approach to his films, his style and in particular the contrasts between the finished Pandora’s Box and Wedekind’s play, in addition to Brooks’ unique style of “acting”. The final part of the interview looks at Pabst’s overall ideals and how unique his Berlin period proved to be. This extends to negative comments from the media in regards to the director’s revolutionist attitude, which soon saw him being labelled as a leftist, with strong messages strewn throughout his work. Pabst did hope to change the world through his chosen medium and his son helps us to see that clearly.
There is also a very nice stills gallery, which rounds of the content on disc two.
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 direction, with an overall foreboding sense of morality strung throughout. It might not have been realised at the time but Pandora’s Box significantly paved the way for how films would later tackle certain subject matter and unsurprisingly it still remains as being largely unequalled today.
Criterion has certainly put out a marvellous release, one that is well worth owning as much for its extra features than for the film itself.