Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora)

Germany (1929) Dir. G.W Pabst

Lulu (Louise Brooks) is young dancer and mistress to respected newspaper baron Dr. Ludwig Schön (Fritz Kortner) who announces that he is engaged to the daughter of a minister Charlotte von Zarnikow (Daisy D’Ora) ending their relationship. To keep Lulu occupied Schön suggests that Lulu stars in the new production by his musician son and Lulu’s best friend Alwa (Francis Lederer). Things are going well on the first night until Schön arrives with his fiancée causing Lulu to throw a strop and refuse to perform. When Schön tries to clam her down they end up in a passionate clinch only to be discovered by Charlotte ending the engagement. Resigned to his fate, Schön marries Lulu but instead of a happy ending it marks the beginning of Lulu’s downfall.

The first of the two collaborations between the Austrian director G.W Pabst and the flighty Hollywood starlet Louise Brooks (the other being Dairy of A Lost Girl) has long since been considered a classic although at the time of its release in 1929, it caused quite a stir.

Lulu is an unbridled, amoral woman who gets what she wants and will even stoop to manipulation to get it. She possesses an incendiary sexual charisma which makes her irresistible to both men and woman and she knows it full well. It was this latter aspect which caused a furore among viewers with Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) being arguably the first screen lesbian character. The countess was just one of many who fell for Lulu’s charms – Alwa naturally had the hots for his old friend (despite Lulu proclaiming that he was her best friend because “he wants nothing from me”); she was courted by an old patron Schigolch (Carl Goetz); then Rodrigo Quast (Krafft-Raschig) who tries to recruit Lulu for his trapeze act; Marquis Casti-Piani (Michael von Newlinsky) who helps her flee to Paris after avoiding jail for manslaughter but ends up selling her to an Egyptian pimp; and finally Lulu even manages to pull Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl) – although to be fair he wasn’t particularly fussy when it came to the opposite sex.

Lulu is not an easily likeable character and much of the troubles she gets into are from her own doing yet there are moments when she does elicit sympathy – such as when she is in the dock falsely accused of murder (although again a big smile temporarily derails the trail prosecutor) and when is being harassed from all sides at a gambling den for money. Why the character works and remained so enduring in the world of film is purely down to Brooks’ superlative performance. By her own admittance, Lulu’s story is essentially Brooks’ own so perhaps playing the role wasn’t that much of a stretch but it is this totally natural performance which makes serves to remind us that this fiery femme fatale is in fact a human and a lost one at that, trapped by her own actions and frivolous personality.

For Brooks this was a star making performance and if the legends are true, nearly went to Marlene Deitrich until Pabst wooed Brooks from her unhappy run in Hollywood to Germany. By today’s standards the sensuality is tame but yet the odd moment slips though which makes one say “Whoa!”. Yet this pushing of the boundaries of sexuality on screen is done without being sordid or cheap and therein lies the magic and power of this film, even if the drama is a little heavy handed at times.

The perfect blend of melodrama and German expressionism with one of the most sublime and engaging performances ever captured on film, Pandora’s Box remains a seminal work and an definitive calling card for both director and star.