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Pandora's BoxPandora's Box (Der Buchse der Pandora)

(Germany, 1928, 110 minutes, b/w, 35 mm, silent)

Directed by G. W. Pabst

Louise Brooks . . . . . . . . . . Lulu
Fritz Kortner . . . . . . . . . . Dr. Peter Schön
Francis Lederer . . . . . . . . . Alwa Schön

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

Georg Wilhelm Pabst is a monument in European film history, a figure whose life is as complex and ironized as any of his great characters—and none of these is as enthralling and tragic as his Lulu, as played in Pandora’s Box by the remarkable girl from Cherryvale, Kansas, Louise Brooks.

The Austrian-born Pabst is one of the founders of neorealism.  Many of his films featured ordinary characters, hapless, bruited about by social conditions they cannot control, in a mise-en-scene scattered with the detritus of ordinary life.  His The Joyless Street (1925), The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), Westfront (1930), and Kameradschaft and The Threepenny Opera (both 1931) are at the heart of the sometimes neglected realist tradition in Weimar cinema.  The Joyless Street, indeed, was the core film in a cycle of “street” films, careful delineations of postwar Germany’s economic and spiritual poverty.  The Love of Jeanne Ney saw Pabst’s expressive mise-en-scene taken to dramatic extremes; it is a film whose pathological “thingness” invites comparisons with von Stroheim’s Greed.  His German films featured exceptional and introspective performances by women who would credit him with some of the most best, yet most harrowing direction they received in their careers, including Asta Nielsen, Brigitte Helm, Henny Porten, Leni Riefenstahl, and the woman who might have become, under other circumstances, his muse, Louise Brooks.

Pandora’s Box is a backstage drama, based on a Frank Wedekind play, notorious when it was first performed in the 1890's.  Its heroine, the stage performer and sexual epicure Lulu, as played by Louise Brooks, is entrancing to us as well as to the men she casually destroys with her casual amours.  Described by one critic as “intimately amoral,” Brooks’ Lulu is a beautiful, glazed sexual confection, her motives obscure, her attraction immediate.  The role almost went to Marlene Dietrich, a genius of such characterizations, and indeed, Lulu seems a uniquely Weimar type, beautiful, unconventional, cruel, a sexual adventuress.  Yet, the American Brooks plays this unreflective character with such knowingness that the great critic of German cinema, Lotte Eisner, could refer wonderingly to “the miracle of Louise Brooks.” Brooks was the very image of the American flapper, with her fine-featured, china doll looks, her unforced, trim elegance, and her disregard for convention.  Openly disgusted with the hypocrisy of the American studio system, she quit/was fired from a star’s contract at Paramount, and happily became an expatriate.

Pabst apparently attended the Fritz Lang academy of imperious Teutonic film directorship, for he played terrible mind games with Brooks, and allowed the set to become rotten with intrigues against her by jealous fellow actors.  But such is the world Lulu lives in, and in later years, Brooks would say that she “revered” Pabst.  Together, they made another brilliant film, The Diary of a Lost Girl, but it is as Lulu that Brooks would be remembered by two generations of devotees for whom “The Girl in the Black Helmet,” as Kenneth Tynan styled her in a marvelous profile, was an unfulfillable erotic dream. For the rest of her life, a life lived in voluntary retirement and surrounded by admiring film fans, Brooks would seem more European than American, more Lulu than Cherryvale.  And over the years, the name Lulu would come to fit her as naturally as one of the winsome cloche hats she had worn in the 1920's.

At the time of Pandora’s Box, Pabst was at the pinnacle of his international acclaim, recognized by an emerging group of cineastes for his delicate, morbid social conscience.   In 1927, the influential cinema magazine Close-Up wrote of Pabst: “...he has what few have, a consciousness of Europe.  He sees psychologically and because of this, because in a flash he knows the subconscious impulse or hunger that prompted an apparently trivial action, his intense realism becomes, through its truth, poetry.”  Pabst had another way of addressing the absurdity of existence, the enforced obliviousness of a humanity that can speak of its destiny, but never know it: “Our life is at every moment before us like a stranger in the night, and which of us knows what point he will reach on the morrow?”

Like a character in one of his films, for much of his life, Pabst found himself a leaf blown about in the winds of social change.  He had been a prisoner of war for four years during the First World War; the time of Weimar, so politically unstable, would turn out to have been the  moment when his career was briefly stable, in tune as he was with the radical political currents and artistic experiments of the time.  Pabst’s films then were both popular and critically celebrated; he was instrumental in starting the European Left film movement, in collaboration with Brecht, Erwin Piscator, Karl Freund, and Heinrich Mann.  An assured stylist, Pabst was known for smoothly articulated camera movements, an immediate facility with sound, and a complex subjectivity built around sympathetic but often inscrutable female protagonists.  But the war made of him, along with many in the German film industry, a refugee.  He emigrated first to France, then to the US, where he made a single film, the sardonic Depression-era fable A Modern Hero, in 1934, then back to France as war loomed again.  Horrifically, he found himself in Austria in 1941.  Then, in a half-hearted collaboration, he made films for the Nazis, for which many never forgave him.  After war, he made films all over Europe, wherever financing could be found.  In those years, and almost certainly by way of atonement, he returned to the Left politics of his great anti-war and social realist Weimar works, to make anti-Nazi films such as  Der Prozess (1947), and films about Hitler’s last days, and the 1944 plot to kill Hitler.  He died in 1967.
Near the end of Pabst’s life, filmmaker Jean Renoir recognized that Pabst’s deeply personal style was so subtle, so indebted to the prosaic detail of ordinary life, that it might escape the notice of the auteurists who were lionizing Renoir. Generously, he wrote: “Pabst knows how to create a strange world, whose elements are borrowed from daily life.  Beyond this precious gift, he knows how, better than anyone else, to direct actors. His characters emerge like his own children, created from fragments of his own heart and mind.”

--Kevin Hagopian, Penn State

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