Saturday, August 21, 2021

Pandora's Box (1929)

Louise Brooks is of course a cinema legend, and that legend rests entirely on the two films she made in Germany in 1929. She made more than a dozen movies in Hollywood during the 20s, and that part of her career amounts to nothing. The eight later movies she made amount to nothing. But her performances in the two German films directed by G.W. Pabst, Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) and Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen) have led to her being hailed as one of the greats.

Lulu, the heroine of Pandora's Box, is the mistress of Dr Ludwig Schön (Fritz Kortner). Schön is planning to marry a very respectable very suitable girl, Charlotte Marie Adelaide von Zarnikow. But giving up Lulu is going to be tricky. He doesn’t really want to give her up and she doesn’t want to let him go. There’s a strange old man who keeps hanging around Lulu, a rather sinister but as yet unexplained figure.

There are complications with Schön’s son and with Lulu’s best friend who appears to have a lesbian infatuation with Lulu.

The situation gets very messy and ends with a man dead of a gunshot wound, and with Lulu on trial for her life. But Lulu’s story is far from over.

It is difficult not to compare Pandora's Box to The Blue Angel. Apart from the names of the lead characters (Lulu in Pandora's Box and Lola Lola in The Blue Angel) there are many striking similarities. Both deal with women who ignore the social and sexual conventions of their time. Both have show business backgrounds. Both deal with men destroyed by a dangerous woman. Both deal with the immense power of female sexuality. The two films he made with Brooks were the peak of Pabst’s career while the seven films he made with Marlene Dietrich were the peak of von Sternberg’s career. Both directors slept with their respective leading ladies, so both actresses could claim to be both muse and lover to their directors. Both films are entirely dependent on the performances of their respective leading ladies. Both actresses were, in their private lives, sexual outlaws. And both Louise Brooks and Marlene Dietrich became stylistic icons as a result of these two films.

There are significant differences. Pabst was a believer in realism, von Sternberg believed in style, style and nothing but style. Pandora's Box plays as melodrama laced with tragedy. The Blue Angel is comedy laced with melodrama.

For such a legendary star Louise Brooks had a catastrophic film career. She also had what could be described as a colourful if frequently catastrophic life. She started as a dancer, broke into films, destroyed her own film career (by being totally unwilling to play by the rules and also as a result of her prodigious sexual appetites), she spent a lengthy period working as a call girl before being rediscovered and finding success as a writer (her book Lulu in Hollywood was a bestseller).

Writing about Pandora’s Box presents some challenges. The movie was not a success when it was released and it was soon forgotten. And within a few years of its release Louise Brooks was entirely forgotten. Both the movie and its star were rediscovered in the late 1950s. When obscure and forgotten movies or stars get rediscovered people tend to get rather carried away. It’s not very exciting to rediscover a forgotten film and find that it is in fact a fairly good film, but not a masterpiece. People want to believe that they have rediscovered a lost masterpiece. And when an obscure actress is suddenly rediscovered people don’t want to believe that she was a reasonably good actress, they want to believe that she was one of the all-time greats who had been unfairly forgotten.

And that’s the problem with Pandora’s Box. It’s a good movie and it’s an interesting one but it isn’t a masterpiece. Pabst was a stodgy director and the pacing is also lethargic. Lulu is a manipulative woman who isn’t clever enough to be a successful manipulator. She does foolish things and gets herself into big trouble and from then on it’s all downhill for her. Her life becomes a series of endless disasters. But she just doesn’t have quite enough psychological complexity to make her story compelling, and from the halfway point she’s really just an appalled spectator watching her life go down the drain. The losers with whom she surrounds herself drag her down but we don’t get a real sense of tragedy because Lulu just drifts helplessly. The ending is silly and melodramatic.

Brooks gives a very competent rather naturalistic performance but the idea that is sometimes promoted that she single-handedly revolutionised film acting just doesn’t stand up.

Had Brooks declined the role Pabst’s second choice would have been Marlene Dietrich. The conventional view is that it’s fortunate for the world of cinema that Dietrich was not chosen. I do not agree. Dietrich was a far better actress with a much greater emotional range and might have made far more of the role.

The main interest of the film, and perhaps the real reason that people get carried away with it, is that the story of Lulu strikingly parallels the story of its star. A brief period of shining brightly, then disaster, followed by escalating self-inflicted further disasters and a descent into degradation and prostitution. And neither Lulu nor Brooks ever seemed to understand what went wrong. It’s easy, and tempting, to romanticise both Lulu and Brooks and to try to make them tragic figures brought down by a hostile world which cannot understand their refusal to avoid self-destruction. The fact that both Lulu and Brooks were driven by an overwhelming desire for sexual freedom naturally ensured that both film and star would become legendary figures in the 1960s and 1970s, seen as bold precursors of the Sexual Revolution.

There is no question that Louise Brooks, more than any other woman, captured the look of the Jazz Age. She had the face that suited the fashionable bob hairstyle, she had the body to wear the fashions of the era and she certainly had sexual allure, at a time when her kind of overt sexual allure was becoming a very big thing. It’s worth seeing Pandora's Box just to see Brooks at her most iconic. When you see this movie you’ll understand why the Louise Brooks look was a sensation. But while it’s an interesting movie it’s not a masterpiece. Worth a look.

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