Saturday, August 21, 2021
Pandora's Box (1929)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.