Pandora’s Box: apart from its lead star, it’s an ordinary film with soap opera plot

G W Pabst, “Pandora’s Box” (1929)

On its cinematic release, this German movie garnered little attention for its American star Louise Brooks in her home country and languished in obscurity for 25 years until rediscovered by French film buffs in the late 1950’s, by which time Brooks’s career as an actor had mirrored the misfortunes of her “Pandora’s Box” character Lulu to a lesser extent. The film is remarkable mainly for Brooks’s vivacious and often subtle portrayal of Lulu; this performance carries the entire film so much so that in the few scenes where Brooks doesn’t appear, the action is drained of energy and zest. Apart from Brooks and the camera work, the rest of the movie is fairly ordinary.

The plot is a mix of character study and soap opera: Lulu is the mistress of rich newspaper owner Dr Ludwig Schon and their affair is a well-known scandal in their city. Dr Schon resolves to marry a more respectable woman. An old friend Schigolch visits Lulu with his acquaintance Rodrigo Quast who offers Lulu a job in a trapeze act. She accepts but Schon steers her to his stage manager son Alwa’s dancing revue show. Lulu opts for that instead but on opening night, Schon brings his fiancee along and this creates a near-disaster when Lulu refuses to perform and forces Schon to choose between her and the fiancee. Schon chooses Lulu in a scene where they are caught in flagrante delicto and resignedly resolves to marry her.

The marriage starts and ends the same day with Schon’s shotgun death and Lulu is tried for murder, found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to jail. Schigolch and Quast stage a hoax fire alarm panic in the court-house to rescue Lulu and spirit her away. She and Alwa, who is now in love with her, flee abroad as fugitives with help from Countess Geschwirt who may once have been Lulu’s lover and from a nobleman who must be paid money to keep quiet. From then on, Lulu and Alwa’s fortunes sink lower – Alwa resorts to gambling, the nobleman sells Lulu to a brothel owner and Quast tries to blackmail her – until Lulu, Alwa and Schigolch end up living in squalid poverty in London and Lulu is forced to sell her body for money.

Broken up into a series of eight acts, which conveniently let the film explain away loose ends to the passage of time between acts, the narrative can be hard for viewers to follow, especially in its second half after Schon’s death which jumps from Germany to Egypt to Britain. In the British act, there seems also to be a jump back in time of about 40 years: “Jack the Ripper” (actually unnamed in the movie) is at large murdering prostitutes when Lulu meets him and the entire episode looks very Dickensian with its dark dank streets and Schigolch in a poorhouse tucking into Christmas pudding. A number of scenes try to squeeze as much pathos out as possible: Dr Schon’s death agony is dragged out for all it’s worth and the episode set in Britain also bogs down in tedium until Lulu meets the serial killer. The support characters come and go as mere story props to send Lulu on and on in her downward spiral; even Alwa, who should be a significant character in his own right as rival to his father in love and to Quast in Lulu’s career opportunity alternatives, is lame and disjointed for the plot’s purposes and a true love triangle never really emerges. It’s hard to see why Lulu stays with Alwa rather than trip off with Quast. Quast hangs out with Schigolch (who himself is useful mainly to get Schon angry at Lulu), not doing or saying much, until it’s time to demand money from Lulu; then Countess Geschwirt and Schigolch come into their own as characters to lure Quast into a trap and murder him. After this, the Countess disappears from the screen and Schigolch reverts to his drunken comic persona.

The only fully realised characters are Lulu and Dr Schon whose relationship is the only really interesting aspect of the plot. Why does Schon continue to live with Lulu when he knows she will be the ruin of him? His character is intriguing in its almost implausible contradictions; unless viewers actually know of real-life powerful men who have thrown their money, power, family and even lives over for callgirls, escorts and women in occupations of similar low regard (one thinks of Anna Nicole Smith and her brief marriage to an oil tycoon), they may find Schon hard to believe as a credible character. The entire gist of “Pandora’s Box” is that one young woman can exercise a destructive, even fatal attraction for men, to the extent that they’ll sacrifice themselves for her, by the sheer force of her nature and personality. Brooks’s achievement in this respect is that as the femme fatale, she makes this attraction look so effortless, even unconscious: Lulu can’t help but be the flame that attracts men like moths to burn in its heat – the flame is all that she is. Act Five, which covers the trial, illustrates Lulu’s nature well: attempting to be demure in dark clothes and a veil, looking at the barristers and jury with wide-eyed frankness, Lulu unintentionally ends up looking like a seductress. The scene with the serial killer hints that the seductiveness masks a pathological need for Lulu to be loved and to belong to someone, and shows that Lulu’s open and innocent nature, dependent on others as though she were a child who never grew up, will be as destructive of her as it has been of Schon and Alwa.

Pabst’s direction emphasises many close-up shots, particularly of Lulu: Brooks’s incandescent beauty, reminiscent of later actor Isabella Rossellini in some ways in its openness, and its mobile expressiveness are caught well on camera. The scene in which she and Schon are caught together back-stage by Alwa and Schon’s fiancee is a major highlight of Brooks’s subtle acting ability: in one short moment, probably less than a few seconds, Brooks’s face changes from surprise at being caught to triumph at having captured Schon and the camera picks this up perfectly. In the court-room, again the close-up shots show Lulu’s face registering myriad feelings and emotions about the trial’s proceedings as she looks from one lawyer to another. Elsewhere in the movie, there is excellent and often very stylised camera work that shows the influence of German Expressionism in the way scenes and lighting are often set up to emphasise mood, tension and maximum drama.

The film is of value mainly as the premier showcase of Louise Brooks’s natural talent as an actor. After making “Pandora’s Box”, Brooks’s career as an actor petered out during the 1930’s, her last major film being a so-so Western “Overland Stage Raiders” with up-coming actor John Wayne. Brooks tried her hand as a dance teacher, radio voice actor, columnist for a newspaper and even as a courtesan before settling on a more or less stable career as a writer for the rest of her life.

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