Sunday, March 15, 2009

Pandora's Box (1929)

Lulu’s almost always smiling. Her frowns come only when times are bleakest, and even then, they’re just emblems of furious plotting. Having escaped immediate danger, Lulu returns to bliss. Consequences, grief, the pain of those she’s hurt—she lets them all slip like a fur coat from her magnificent shoulders.

Lulu is everyone’s preoccupation in Pandora’s Box, a late-silent film that chronicles lives run aground. She is a prostitute; owing her life to those who would squander their own to possess her. And they will. Lulu is a youthful peak of beauty and charisma, and all will be smitten. Even her killer.

Lulu is played by Louise Brooks, an American actress and dancer blessed with radioactive screen presence. Having cast her, Austrian director G.W. Pabst attained a powerful, wonderful instrument—a woman who could project nearly the full range of feminine appeal. Brooks could seem vulnerable, playful, aggressive, seductive, intellectual or erotic. And while she was never innocent, she could certainly be childish. To direct Brooks’ face must have been like conducting a symphony, made all the more precise by Pabst’s own, exceptional skills.

Brooks and Lulu reflect one another, and neither version of the woman seems tethered to a time. Lulu looks, and acts, like a modern seductress, with poise and sexuality that evoke no one era. Even her hairstyle seems current.

Pabst surrounds his character with a movie that is likewise out of sync. Pandora’s Box was released in 1929, but is set 50 years earlier. There are no wagon-wheeled automobiles or other archaic technologies to establish the film’s age for us. Only late in the film do we even see a horse. Nor does the movie stick to old styles of filmmaking. Like Lulu herself, Pabst’s camera ignores limits, panning from side-to-side, flying to the heights of a room, and zooming toward telling close-ups. Pandora’s Box isn’t just a good movie—it’s a fresh one.

And at the centre, always, is Lulu. In the movie’s first scene, she interrupts a city inspector, checking the meters in her German flat. She flirts with him slyly, while holding a bottle of liquor. Lulu, too is an intoxicant; she has the stern old man enraptured in seconds. We can nearly read his thoughts, then—and more clearly a moment later, when a scraggly urchin named Schigolch (Carl Goetz) appears. Lulu is delighted at his arrival and completely forgets about her new friend. The officer immediately straightens his back, returns his hat to his head and, we think, vows to be wiser.

Schigolch has all the knowledge he needs. Admiring Lulu’s digs, he observes, “This newspaper editor, Dr. Schön, looks after you nicely, but one friend doesn’t guarantee our future.” Lulu will later claim Schigolch is her father, though by that point, we cannot trust her. He’s probably her pimp. Whatever he is, he’ll always be around.

Dr. Schön arrives next. He’s an older man, squinting, humourless and tensed. He informs Lulu that he’s engaged. She sprawls over her chaise, watching him pace as he explains himself. He feels trapped—his social position is threatened by his relationship with Lulu, which is well-known. He cannot marry Lulu, of course, yet he cannot give her up. If he marries his fiancé, his position will be saved, but the marriage will be doomed.

Dr. Schön states these facts as though he’s describing the weather. His assessment would devastate most women, but to Lulu, this is simply his turn in the game. She throws her arms around his neck and declares (with a grin): “You’ll have to kill me to get rid of me.” She knows he’s not going anywhere.

Everyone contributes to Lulu’s success. Dr. Schön has a son, Alwa (Francis Lederer), who is a theatre promoter. Alwa is friends with a costume designer, Gräfin Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). Both are powerfully attracted to Lulu, and aware of her affair with Alwa’s father. The pair will put Lulu’s charms to good use in a stage variety show, which will be supported by Dr. Schön’s newspaper.

Alwa is romantic, while his father is merely morose. The son asks his dad, ‘why won’t you marry Lulu?’ Dr. Schön replies: “One doesn’t marry such a woman! It would be suicide!” Yet when faced with this truth, and his compulsion toward Lulu, he seems resigned to their mutual result. Only this attitude could explain the next scene, when Dr. Schön brings his fiancé to the variety show’s opening performance. What could this achieve, beyond his destruction? Schön’s fiancé burns a glare into Lulu, who responds with a tantrum: She will not perform before ‘that woman.’ Lulu locks herself in a storage room and only Dr. Schön is allowed inside to plead with her. His fiancé walks in on the inevitable.

Act 4 opens with Dr. Schön and Lulu’s wedding party. The guestlist is a dignified bunch, except for Schigolch and his lowlife comrade, Rodrigo (Krafft-Raschig). The couple aren’t together much; he’s got a lot of stationary schmoozing to do and she can’t sit still. Lulu’s outfit looks like an all-white nun’s habit.

Their wedding night is the last of Dr. Schön’s life. Alcohol, and one encounter too many with Lulu’s party guests, convince him the marriage is a mad pursuit. Alone in their bedroom, he forces a gun into her hands, telling her to kill herself before she drives him to murder. Their bodies press the gun between them, and as Lulu shifts, it is Schön who is shot.

Pandora’s Box now asks its central question: How much responsibility must one take for one’s effect on others? Lulu wishes to take none; she uses her magnetism to protect herself, then spends the rest of her time seeking enjoyment. Dr. Schön recognizes his obsessive nature, but rather than address it, he demonizes Lulu for being its trigger. Does he die because he refuses to take control of his own life, or because he recognizes Lulu is too dangerous to persist, and tries to correct that? The former is childishness; the latter, misogyny. Maybe he’s better off dead.

The murder ends up having consequences for Lulu, even if she can’t appreciate them. She becomes the centrepiece of a sensational murder trial, drawing a massive crowd to hear her pleas of innocence. The prosecutor wants death. He compares her to the Pandora of antiquity—not a source of evil in her own right, but one who looses evil upon the world. Lulu protests like a ham-actress, begging mercy in an all-black outfit nearly identical in design to her wedding dress. She is convicted. As the crowd pushes in for a better look, Schigolch’s operative sets off a fire alarm and she escapes amid the chaos:

Lulu and Alwa flee Germany together, eventually settling at a seedy inn by a portside town. Alwa degrades quickly, just like his dad—soon he’s a stressed wreck in a sweaty tuxedo, gambling to earn their food and shelter. Schigolch tags along, of course, urging Alwa to play with a marked deck. Before long, Lulu is blackmailed by one of the men they’ve met along the way. As he points out, she’s worth £300 to an Egyptian pimp, but the German police would give him nearly as much to turn her in. Again, Schigolch saves them. Alwa is caught using the marked deck and again, the desperate trio escape amidst a riot; this time bound for London.

The final Act of Pandora’s Box is different from the rest. It begins not with Lulu, but with a ruined man walking the streets of London at night. He passes through the winter fog, stops before a picture window and watches a family celebrating their Christmas feast. He moves on. Down the road he finds a Salvation Army band, giving food to the needy. The man is tall and well dressed—he stands out among the homeless. But his eyes are dead. He gives a coin to the charity and continues into the fog.

Meanwhile, London has been unkind to Lulu and her tag-alongs. They’re making do in a windowless attic, where Alwa lies in bed, nearly catatonic. Schigolch shows up with liquor, but no other contribution. Only Lulu is really coping. She’s paints her lips by the light of the oil lamp and severs a loaf of stale bread with her knife. She’s headed into the street to work. This scene ends with a puff of black smoke and then we see a police notice, warning of a serial killer on the loose, targeting women and girls. No names are mentioned, but we consider the era, and the city, and we know who the killer must be.

Now Lulu is standing to the left of a lamppost, looking for johns. The lamppost bisects the frame perfectly. The ruined man walks past her, on the right. She beckons him, then crosses over to the other side.

The couple arrive at Lulu’s attic. He stops on the stairs below her, and she asks him what’s wrong. “I have no money,” he explains. Lulu responds as she always has when people have something she wants, but feel they cannot give it—with a beautiful smile. The man drops the knife he is holding behind his back, and follows her to her now empty home.

The result is a remarkable scene. Lulu has no games for this man; only a moment of intimacy, warmer and more genuine than any the film has shown us. Lulu and the killer embrace, and it is an urgent, long and needful embrace. But he can see the knife over her shoulder—the one she used to cut the bread. His frenzy returns, and he murders her.

Violent as it is, this ending is one of the most elegant I’ve seen. Only such a conclusion could indict Lulu without excusing the pathetic behaviour of Dr. Schön, Alwa and Schigolch. As an enabler of destructive forces, she cannot have any defence against one who actively destroys. Lulu’s death reduces her entire life to irony—striving daily to prolong her life at others’ expense, only she is skilled enough to bring her murderer close.

Where to find Pandora’s Box:
Criterion offers Pandora’s Box as a two-disc set. The film can be played with four optional scores, or with scholarly commentary. The set also includes a stills gallery, current and archival interviews (one of which is with Louise Brooks herself) and a 1998 documentary, Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu. Check it out here:


  1. If you like Brooks work in film, check out her writing in "Lulu in Hollywood" if you haven't already - a great book.

  2. if you like pabst's work you'll love his other films like "Joyless Street" with garbo and especially "Abwege" with brigitte helm.i have links to them at my blog ( you want easy acess to them, in fact i have a whole silent film archive right under the 'watch silent movies here' tab.

  3. i think it's probably set in the 1910s rather than the 1880s