This year marks the centennial of the birth of actress Louise Brooks, and it is only fitting that her most acclaimed screen accomplishment should be brought back for a theatrical re-release. While there is a big treat in seeing “Pandora’s Box” on the big screen in a new 35 mm print (the New York engagement features live piano accompaniment by Steve Steiner performing a witty and original score), it might not be a bad time to re-evaluate the film without the extremism that has plagued its history.
The German-lensed “Pandora’s Box” premiered in America in late 1929, hobbled by both severe editing due to censorship demands and the disappearance of the silent cinema as talking pictures emerged as the new cinema standard. The reviews at the time were withering, with Brooks bearing the brunt of the critical scorn, and its failure helped seal the doom of silent movies. It was not until the 1950s that “Pandora’s Box” was rediscovered and belatedly praised as a masterwork of art, with Brooks being hailed as the most enchanting and incandescent figure of the 1920s silver screen.
Today, one can clearly confirm the hailing of Brooks in this performance. But as a work of art, “Pandora’s Box” is not exactly a perfect film. To be frank, the film’s overheated plot has more soap than the Procter & Gamble product line – and it is easy to get the fidgets as the film often stalls in its various plot machinations. (The current version is 110 minutes, although the original reportedly ran 130 minutes.) While G.W. Pabst’s direction is frequently striking, it often fails to differentiate between artistic and artsy.
For those out of the loop, here is what you’ve missed: Louise Brooks (she of the pageboy bobbed hairstyle and flapper wardrobe) is the amoral Lulu, the mistress of the wealthy publisher Dr. Peter Schön. Ol’ sugar daddy doesn’t mind keeping Lulu in a swanky apartment and in fine cash reserves, but he won’t marry her. His son, the aspiring musician Alwa (Franz Lederer, who later emigrated to America and changed his name to Francis Lederer) is also in love with Lulu. So is the old miscreant Schigolch and the burly circus acrobat Rodrigo, who want Lulu to appear in a trapeze act. There is also the Countess Geschwitz (Belgian actress Alice Roberts), who makes movie history as the first on-screen lesbian. Yes, she has the hots for Lulu, too.
The elder Schön agrees to finance a musical revue featuring Lulu as the star dancer, but he has the bad grace to show up backstage on opening night with the woman he is planning to marry – a respectable girl from a proper family. Lulu refuses to go on, and while Schön tries to negotiate with her he falls in lust and agrees to marry her. Lulu goes on stage and becomes a hit.
The wedding, however, is not a hit. Schigolch and Rodrigo drunkenly crash the honeymooner’s bedroom and Schön believes Lulu is already unfaithful. He gives her a gun and orders her to commit suicide. In a struggle, she kills him. A court sentences her to five years in prison, but after the verdict is reached her pals create a panic in the courthouse by screaming “Fire!” Lulu escapes and Alwa takes her out of the country.
Alas, they are spotted by a titled pimp, the Marquis Casti-Piani, who forces them to take up residence on a gambling ship docked along the French coast. Alwa goes broke gambling, Rodrigo (who shows up with Schigolch and the lesbian countess) demands money from Lulu or else he’ll report her to the police, and the Marquis threatens to sell her to an Egyptian aristocrat. Again, another fracas breaks out (this time when Alwa is caught cheating at cards) and Lulu dons mens’ clothing to escape with Alwa and Schigolch to London.
But London is not hospitable. In fact, by Christmas they are broke and hungry in a cold attic hovel. Lulu decides to raise money by working the streets, but as luck would have it she picks a john who is really a jack – as in Jack the Ripper. Nighty night, Lulu!
It is surprising that Lulu and company never contemplate issues of plumbing, because plotwise the only thing “Pandora’s Box” is missing is the kitchen sink. It is literally too much of a good thing – lesbianism, bisexuality, adultery, murder, fights, romantic ruin, and dancing girls. If Howard Stern made silent films, he’d be on the credits list for this one.
And despite Pabst’s inventive camerawork, with its expressionistic angles and moody lighting (which is often too obvious and heavy handed), he literally never knows when to stop stuffing the story. The film has three intricate riot sequences – backstage at the revue, the courthouse stampede and the gambling ship rumble – that are overcrowded with people, emotion and energy. It is just overkill, full of fury (if not sound) but ultimately leaving the viewer exhausted. Naturally, the notion of Lulu’s escape from such madness is not a question of if but when – and when often seems to be a long time coming.
But there is no denying the animal magnetism of Brooks’ Lulu. She is completely insouciant in her ability to attract and destroy people with her sex appeal and reckless behavior – and that is genuine appeal of her star power, the sheer naturalness of her sexuality. Brooks did not vamp or overplay her role – Pabst brought out of her an extraordinary organic performance which doesn’t even seem like acting (certainly not in comparison to the occasionally hamming around her, particularly Gustav Diessl as an eye-popping Jack the Ripper). And viewing the performance on the big screen further magnifies her glory.
“Pandora’s Box” certainly deserves to be seen, but today’s viewers should be aware that it may not appear to be matching the classic status many people insist it deserves. But Louise Brooks, in her peak performance, is every inch a classic and the film demands new viewing strictly for her.