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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Pandora’s Box

Director: G. W. Pabst
Country: Germany
Year: 1929

“Search fearlessly for every sin, for out of sin comes joy.”
Frank Wedekind, author of Pandora’s Box

“He 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.”
Jean Renoir, describing G.W. Pabst, director of Pandora’s Box

“I have a gift for enraging people, but if I ever bore you, it’ll be with a knife.”
Louise Brooks, star of Pandora’s Box

“Most beautiful dumb girls think they are smart and get away with it, because other people, on the whole, aren’t much smarter.”
Louise Brooks

“I like to drink and fuck.”
Louise Brooks

Background

Frank (Benjamin Franklin) Wedekind was a German businessman, who performed in a circus, worked in the advertising department of a Swiss soup firm, and eventually found success as a singer, lute player, actor, and musical satirist, like Tom Lehrer or a more political Weird Al. His work as a musical satirist eventually led to arrest and imprisonment for the crime of “lèse-majesté.” What, exactly, is lèse-majesté, you ask? To the layman, this obscure legal term is best explained by this picture of a bare-assed drunk farting at a portrait of the king. It’s Treason, is what it is!

After his release, Wedekind turned his considerable energies to playwriting. His first play, Spring Awakening (1891) featured homoeroticism, masturbation, suicide, and abortion. It was later turned into a musical. No, I am not kidding. Most of his plays continued in that vein, lambasting bourgeois attitudes toward sex, social position, and so forth. Today, he is best known for his two “Lulu” plays: Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904). Combined, these two plays are the basis for this week’s film (and an opera, but I fucking HATE opera, so I won’t be writing about that).

G. W. Pabst was born in Austria in 1885, the son of a railroad employee. Many of his films focused attention on the plight of women in German society: The Joyless Street starring Greta Garbo, The Loves of Jeanne Ney starring Brigitte Helm, and today’s film, Pandora’s Box, starring Louise Brooks.

Leni Riefenstahl, later denounced for her Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, was in those days an athletic, golden-haired actress. She starred in a series of what came to be called “mountain films,” and one of her best, The White Hell of Pitz Palu, was directed by Pabst.

Pabst’s film version of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera was critically acclaimed, and secured his reputation as a giant of German cinema, a skilled excavator of psychological motivations, a master of Expressionist film technique.

Pabst made films in the U.S. and in France, but in 1938, he returned to the Fatherland and made two films under the Nazi regime. Although he claimed that family business had forced him to return, his reputation was never fully rehabilitated. He made several more films, including: The Trial, a powerful indictment of anti-Semitism; The Last Act, a dramatization of the last days of Hitler; and Jackboot Mutiny, about the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler (the same events that inspired Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie).

He died in May 1967, one month before I was born.

…which brings us to the one person who is primarily responsible for the enduring allure of Pandora’s Box: the beautiful, intelligent, and unapologetically naughty Louise Brooks.

Mary Louise Brooks was born in 1906, in Cherryvale, Kansas. She first appeared on stage at the age of 4, in a church production of Tom Thumb’s Wedding. At the age of 9, she was sexually abused by a neighbor. When Brooks told her mother about this incident years later, her mother replied that it must have been Louise’s fault for “leading him on.” Brooks would later speculate that this experience led to her seeming inability to feel real love. “…nice, soft, easy men were never enough,” she wrote. “There had to be an element of domination.”

By the age of 10, she was dancing professionally at fairs and local theaters. One of her best friends was Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy). At the age of 14, precocious Mary was involved in a sexual affair with a local businessman. In 1921, she joined a dance troupe and moved to Manhattan. Though her talent was never in question, Louise (she had by now dropped the “Mary”) was fired from the dance troupe after the 1923-24 season, for her willful, unruly behavior in general, and for her habit of sleeping with members of the cast, crew and audience in particular. She was 17, and her friends nicknamed her “Hellcat.”

Louise traveled to Europe, worked in nightclubs, and experienced momentary fame as the first person to dance the Charleston in London. After returning to New York, Louise performed as a dancer in the Ziegfield Follies, had a brief affair with Charlie Chaplin, and then signed a five-year contract with Paramount Studios. When “talkies” became the Next Big Thing, Paramount used Louise’s “unproven” voice as an excuse to refuse her a raise. After making 21 silent pictures, appearing on magazine covers, and gaining notoriety as the quintessential jazz-age flapper/bad girl/fashion icon, Louise Brooks walked away from Hollywood.

In 1929, G.W. Pabst begged her to travel to Germany and appear in his film adaptation of Wedekind’s Lulu plays, to be titled Pandora’s Box. “It was clever of Pabst to know even before he met me that I possessed the tramp essence of Lulu,” she later said.

“Brooksie,” as she was sometimes called, used the opportunity to explore the seamier side of Berlin nightlife. The bar at her hotel, she would write, “was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the street outside. On the corner stood the girls in boots, advertising flagellation. Actors’ agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian Quarter. Racetrack touts at the Hoppegarten arranged orgies for groups of sportsmen. The nightclub Eldorado displayed an enticing line of homosexuals dressed as women. At the Maly, there was a choice of feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians.”

Pandora’s Box was panned, as were her other European films, and Louise Brooks returned to Hollywood in 1930. Her willful behavior and haughty departure had not been forgotten, however, and she was never able to resuscitate her career. After an embarrassing series of B pictures and two short-lived marriages, she renounced Hollywood for good in 1938, and returned to Kansas, where she opened a dance studio and wrote a booklet, The Fundamentals of Good Ballroom Dancing. “I fled back to Wichita, where my family had moved in 1919. But that turned out to be another kind of hell. The citizens of Wichita either resented me having been a success or despised me for being a failure. And I wasn’t exactly enchanted with them. I must confess to a lifelong curse: My own failure as a social creature,” she wrote.

By 1946, she had to take a $40-a-week job as a sales girl at Saks Fifth Avenue to make a living. Some sources claim that she turned to prostitution. She began work on her autobiography, to be titled Naked on my Goat. Before it was completed, she threw the manuscript in an incinerator.

In the 1950’s, Louise Brooks used her acerbic wit and encyclopedic knowledge of golden-age Hollywood to forge a new career as a respected film critic, historian, and memoirist. Her essays appeared in magazines like Sight and Sound, Film Culture, and Focus on Film. In 1982, Lulu in Hollywood, a collection of her writings, was published. By this time, she was virtually confined to her bed in Rochester, NY, plagued by emphysema and arthritis. Still, she received a steady stream of visitors and admirers. She quoted Proust and traded gossip with these visitors, allowed herself to be photographed, and skillfully shaped her legacy as the last great jazz age seductress; literate, troubled, sexually liberated, smart, fiery, first warmly inviting and then coolly dismissive.

Louise Brooks died in 1985.

Synopsis

ACT ONE

Louise Brooks, with a cute flapper bob, is serving strong Irish whiskey to an older gentleman.

She’s amazingly cute, all raised eyebrows and sly smiles. What is going on between these two characters? I have no idea. Now a shorter, but equally decrepit, man comes to the door.

“Scholgoch!” (?) exclaims Lulu joyously, sweeping the new man into her bedroom and closing the door behind them, much to the dismay of the first man, who sadly gathers his belongings and leaves. Skingulch (or whatever) and Lulu cavort happily in the bedroom, until the repellant little man finds Lulu’s purse. He carefully counts the money and pockets half, and I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this Skillsaw fellow.

“We haven’t seen each other in such a long time!” exclaims Skyghoul, and downs a bottle of strong Irish whiskey (lacking evidence to the contrary, I assume that any dark-colored liquor is strong Irish whiskey). Lulu dances for Skullglitch, but she has forgotten some of the steps, and the homunculus threatens to beat her. Seconds later, he points out the window at a mysterious man pacing in the street: This is strong-man/trapeze artist Rodrigo Quast, (ed. note: Seriously?) and he wants to put Lulu in his act.

Ah yes; the old “I want to put you in my vaudeville act!” routine. I am reasonably certain this will end in tears.

But that will have to wait, because Dr. Schön, Lulu’s benefactor (and when I say “benefactor,” I mean “sugar daddy”), has just returned!

Slygootch hides, but Dr. Schön is preoccupied with an issue much more pressing than any theoretical variety show: He is getting MARRIED! Which might, I suppose, put a damper on his relationship with Lulu. What to do?

Incidentally, the German word for “married” is apparently “hieraten” which makes it sound EVIL!

There’s some hand-wringing by Dr. Schön, but the upshot is that he wants to break up. Lulu, however, makes like Glenn Close: “You’ll have to kill me to get rid of me!” she says, pulling him down onto the couch.

Lest we forget, Scholtzenhooch is still hiding. A barking dog gives him away, and Lulu is forced to make awkward introductions. Dr. Schön storms out in a huff. Rodrigo Quast enters stage left, and makes Lulu an offer she can’t refuse. “You’re so strong!” she exclaims girlishly, hanging from Quast’s outstretched arm.

ACT TWO

Meanwhile, Dr. Schön is trying to get married, but his catting around with Lulu has made that impossible in the eyes of his prospective father-in-law.

Wait – now there are some new characters: Alwa, who is preparing some kind of musical revue, who also happens to be the son of Dr. Schön. (Alwa’s brother, of course, is Neal, guitarist for 80’s supergroup Journey.)

It appears that Alwa has the (unreciprocated and possibly oedipal) hots for Lulu. The (female) costume designer for the revue, Countess Gezundheit (or something), also has the hots for Lulu. It’s all so complicated! How will they ever sort out all of these conflicting desires?

Oh noes! Here comes the imperious, monocle-rocking Dr. Schön again! “I told you never to visit here again!” he scolds Lulu, but he says it in German: “Ich habe Dir doch jeden Besuch bei mir VERBOTEN!” Which makes it sound more like he’s threatening to invade Poland.

Lulu leaves, pouting, but not before making Alwa promise to visit her the next day. No good can come of that.

When asked why he doesn’t simply marry Lulu, Dr. Schön replies that it would be suicide to marry such a woman, and I’m betting that’s some foreshadowing right there.

Oh… see, I thought Lulu was already in Alwa’s revue, but apparently not. Dr. Schön, feeling guilty, just asked his son to cast her. “She can dance a bit,” he says, “and my newspaper will ensure her success!” Everyone agrees this is a fantastic idea, but Dr. Schön warns his son gravely: “Beware of that woman!”

ACT THREE

Now we’re backstage at Alwa’s revue, and Lulu is dancing around with a giant Pac-Man silhouette stapled to her head.

No, seriously – check it out at approximately 26:30. I will be shocked if Matt doesn’t reference the Pac-Man headwear in his comments. “You should have done the trapeze act with me!” says Quast, strapped into an unconvincing Roman centurion getup.

Dr. Schön and his betrothed have come to see the revue! Lots of hustle, accompanied by simultaneous bustle, backstage. Weirdly, the tone has suddenly shifted to light slapstick… until the fiancé sees Lulu changing into her next costume, with a neckline down to there. When Lulu sees Dr. Schön’s fiancé, she refuses to go onstage. “I will dance for the whole world, but not for that woman!” Lulu announces. While Schön attempts to talk some sense into Lulu, or failing that, have sexual intercourse with her, the curtain rises and the musical number begins, without Lulu.

Of course, by the time Alwa and Schön’s fiancé burst into the dressing room, Lulu and Schön are (ahem) indisposed and the wedding is OFF. Smirking, Lulu puts on her costume and joins the musical number, already in progress.

“Satisfied now, Alwa?” Schön demands. “Now I’ll marry Lulu, and it will be the death of me!”

ACT FOUR

Now we’re at the wedding party. Lulu presides in her wedding finery. The whole town appears to be present. The Countess Gezundheit dances with Lulu, until Schön breaks it up. Quast is at the party, and so is Steingrouch, who drunkenly decides it would be a great idea to lay a rose on Lulu’s bridal bed. German custom, apparently.

Lulu wants Schön to join her in the nuptial chamber, if you know what I mean, but he’s busy hobnobbing with the Bremerhaven (or wherever they live) social elite.

Alwa tells his father that he’s going away to nurse his broken heart. Meanwhile, creepy old Schockenhaven is trying to seduce Lulu, which enrages Schön. A fight breaks out, a handgun is produced, and Lulu screams at her husband not to shoot: “He’s my father!”

After doing a bit of research, I have concluded that when she says “father,” she means it more in the sense of what you and I might call a “pimp.”

Some of Schön’s friends calm him down, but the mood is spoiled and the party breaks up. Alwa tries to talk Lulu into leaving with him, but she demurs because she’s, you know, married to his father. Schön sees them talking and assumes the worst, as you might expect. After Alwa is sent away, Schön trudges around in a daze… He thrusts the gun toward his new bride. “Take it!” he demands. “And kill yourself before you drive me to murder!”

The gun, having been produced, must now be fired. When the smoke clears, Schön is dead and Lulu is holding the murder weapon. Alwa, somewhat predictably, chooses this moment to return.

ACT FIVE

pandora_brooks14

Lulu is on trial. Her lawyer addresses the jury: “Have I not shown that this woman did not commit murder, that her husband was the victim of tragic circumstances?”

But now the stern prosecuting attorney gives his closing speech, and it’s a barn-burner: “You, counsel, portray the accused as a persecuted innocent. I call her Pandora, for through her, all evil was brought upon Dr. Schön!”

I have to admit, he’s pretty convincing.

Lulu is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years, but her friends have other plans. Quast sets off the fire alarm, and, in the ensuing pandemonium, Pandora escapes.

ACT SIX

Lulu is on the lam, hiding in the mansion of her late husband. She decides to take a bath. Alwa (who I’ve just realized looks a bit like middle-of-the-road rocker John Mayer) returns and accidentally sees her starkers, which inflames his smoldering lust and makes him cranky.

“If you feel at home here, where my father bled to death,” he declares, “then I must leave!” Lulu threatens to turn herself in, but Alwa stops her. They embrace. “We’ll go away together!” Lulu exclaims happily.

Using an assumed identity, Lulu boards a train with Alwa. Before the train can depart, however, she is recognized by a fellow passenger! Will our embattled lovers escape? Will Lulu ever find peace? Luckily, the nosy passenger is willing to look the other way for a small fee. He also suggests to Alwa that they should follow him to a place he knows – a place that is “hospitable and discreet.”

ACT SEVEN

Alwa and Lulu are holed up in a Holiday Inn somewhere, and Countess Gezundheit (or something) comes to visit them. Alwa is trying to pay the bills by gambling, but that (predictably) is not going as well as he had hoped. Quast the strongman/trapeze artist (remember him?) demands money for his upcoming wedding. If he doesn’t get it, he’ll turn Lulu over to the cops.

Also, the guy from the train is still hanging around, trying to sell Lulu to a creepy Egyptian. Countess Gezundheit gives Lulu the last of her money, and she gives it to Alwa, who plans to turn it into more money with the help of some trick cards hidden in the sleeve of his tux. Old Schoolgrinch sics Quast on the Countess Gezundheit, hoping to find a way to get at her money. Lulu begs Gezundheit to let Quast have his way. Over at the poker table, Alwa is making like Edward Norton in Rounders.

Quast tries to rape Countess Gezundheit, but she fights back and kills him. Alwa’s cheating is exposed. The police are called. Alwa, Lulu, and Shillwrench escape in a dinghy.

ACT EIGHT

Alwa, Lulu, and Skeetulrich are despondent and destitute in… London? I’m not sure. They are living in an abandoned building, subsisting on crumbs of stale bread and strong Irish whiskey purchased on credit. Again, I don’t really know that it’s strong Irish whiskey, but that’s hardly salient at this point, as our heroes circle the drain.

Finally, starving, Lulu turns to prostitution. Her first client is Jack the Ripper.

What I Liked

Louise Brooks as Lulu was compelling, sexy, funny, wily, and completely convincing. The cinematography was occasionally stunning. I liked that the film had the courage of its convictions and followed the story to its logical conclusion of all-encompassing spiritual and physical doom.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

Pandora’s Box was over two hours long, ferchrissake! Seriously, the writers could have removed approximately one-third of the plot without any damage to the desolate ending. Viewed in the context of its era, I’m sure Pandora’s Box was fairly racy stuff. But the absurd, frankly melodramatic plot, combined with the fact that it was a silent film pushed it over into creaky “I can’t pay the rent!” / “You must pay the rent!” territory for me. I couldn’t take it seriously, felt very little emotional engagement, and was constantly frustrated by the stupid decisions of the characters. While I could appreciate the artistry, and I’d be interested to see Louise Brooks in something else… this was my least favorite film in this series thus far.

Should You See It?

If you have a soft spot for this kind of ponderous, silent era woman-done-wrong/wages-of-sin melodrama, and if you have the patience to stick with it for 133 minutes, have at it. Also, if you’ve never seen Louise Brooks in anything else, it might be worth it to watch at least part of Pandora’s Box, because she is quite something. Otherwise, I recommend giving this one a miss.

Next: Pépé Le Moko

3 Comments

  1. Brooksie looks like Dita Von Teez. I think she is the original burlesque queen

  2. That’s it! I am getting a bob and a T-back dress.

  3. I’ll admit right now that I’ve watched a lot of silent films but they, pretty much, run the gamut from Harold Lloyd to Buster Keaton to Charlie Chaplin. I have still not seen “Birth of a Nation” or “Thief of Baghdad” or many other classic silent films. Yes. I’ve seen “Metropolis” and “Nosferatu” and “Phantom of the Opera” but, still, I wouldn’t call myself much of an expert in the silent film art form.

    “Pandora’s Box” is a 133 minute long silent film and if the title “Snakes on Plane” tells you everything you need to know about the film…I’m sure you can figure out in about 15 seconds what “Pandora’s Box” is about. And, even though you’ve figured it out by now, I’m going to tell you about the film anyway.

    Lulu is a German prostitute. She is hot. VERY. HOT. Stunningly beautiful and a complete charmer. Early on in the film she’s finishing up with a “customer” when an old guy shows up. Dancing, laughter, etc. the old guy tells her that a man wants to put her in a show. Seems that Lulu was once (still is??) a dancer/performer of some sort and the old guy encourages her to get back on the stage.

    Before she can meet with the guy waiting on the street, another customer shows up. Dr. So-and-so who is engaged to be married and has to end his coming to Lulu for lovin’. She implores him, though, to keep up the regular business schedule. It’s hard for him to break away. Still, even though he’s about to have his ticket punched, the old guy is discovered hiding out on the balcony and the Dr. leaves in a huff.

    After the Dr. exits, in comes Mr. Strong Man. The guy from the show. He wants to put her on stage and she thinks this would be great fun. After he leaves another young man shows up. We know that he truly loves Lulu because he hasn’t, uh, “shopped at her store” but she’s willing to…he won’t. Plus he designs clothing so he must be gay.

    Back to the Dr. and his fiancé. She’s well aware of the scandal but won’t be taken in by gossip. She loves the Dr. and wants to get married to him anyway.

    As the stage show begins, the Dr. and “Young Man” (who we learn is the Dr.’s son) and the fiancé go to the show and hang out backstage. It’s a wonderfully mad-cap environment with all sorts of things going on everywhere. The Strong Man is there, Lulu is there, more dancers, singers, stage crew, etc. Oh, but when Lulu sees that the Dr. and his fiancé have arrived she absolutely refuses to go on-stage. No one can convince her – not even the (GASP) Stage Manager! He tries to talk the Dr. into talking some sense into her and after a bit of a struggle and a little grab-ass in a side prop room the fiancé and the son open the door to find Lulu and the Doc in each other’s arms. The only thing the Dr. can do now is marry her. (In regards to Jason’s comment about the “Pac-Man” hat – when I watched the film I made a mental note to mention it then failed to until Jason mentioned my potential mentioning it – which, of course, just opened a worm-hole somewhere now that I’ve mentioned it.)

    Cut to: The wedding day. It’s quite a bit of fun until…things turn a bit ugly. The Dr.’s son admits that he loves Lulu and when the Dr. finds his bride in the bedroom with the old guy and the Strong Man – he goes into a fit of rage and gets out a pistol (never a good choice on the wedding night). Though he scares off the two friends he implores Lulu to kill herself at which point a struggle happens and the Dr. gets shot…and dies.

    Cut to: The end of the trial. Still using her stunning beauty and with the Son’s testimony on her side – Lulu is given 5 months in jail but 4.5 months have already been served. Unknowing to her, though, a plot to rescue her is in the works and after a fire alarm is set she is spirited away by thugs (I don’t know who was really behind this – my thought now is that it was the Strong Man and Old Guy – who we find out in the film was not only Lulu’s first customer but…also her father…ewwww).

    On the run now from the law they get on a train to Paris (I think) and run into a business man who will help her hide away. The Business Man seems a bit on the “sketchy” side but in a few months they’re all holed up in a boat down by the river. It’s a river boat with gambling and general shenanigans (did I tell you I like that word?) going on. Lulu is there with the Son, with the Strong Man, with the Old Guy (her father…ewww) and with Business Man. But there are problems… The Strong Man wants 20,000 francs to put on a show AND LULU BETTER GET IT FOR HER! The Business Man wants to sell Lulu to another chap (with fez) for 300 pounds. The Son has a big bad gambling problem and is willing to cheat to save Lulu from being sold into possible slavery (or fez wearing).

    Also showing up is a gal who has the hots for Lulu. She’s a lesbian because, well, she looks like one and once danced romantically with Lulu early on in the film. She shows up with money in pocket but the Strong Man forces his way on her to get the cash.

    The Old Guy (her father…ewww) kills the Strong Man for putting the pinch on her and the Son is found cheating and they all have to escape to London for Christmas.

    Still on the lam, they end up in a drafty apartment and there’s really one thing left to do…and that’s to go back to the oldest profession. The Old Guy (her…you get the point) wants some beans and the Son wants to…gamble? Wear a fez? Well…he certainly doesn’t want her to go back to doing what she does/did best.

    Lulu ends up with a John and takes him back to the drafty apartment. We know this John ain’t too nice due to the announcement that there’s a killer on the loose and the John shows a very shiny knife behind his back.

    Though he says he has no money, Lulu takes him upstairs anyway. Will Lulu’s charm and beauty be enough to sway the man from killing her? Alas…no. And she is killed.

    The Old Guy (her…) spends the evening drinking in a bar while the Son wanders off with a band playing Christmas tunes.

    WHAT I LIKED:

    This is a brutal story, no way around it, and there’s no hiding that fact. The film-makers for the time really explored themes that were probably verboten even for Germany. They don’t shy away from it and explore the brutality in a way that I felt was very honest. This isn’t no “Pretty Woman” bullshit.

    The acting was all around very good. Silent film actors tend to fall to the, how should I say this, the OVER DRAMATIC department. Though some of the actors had their moments – to a person they were all very good. Especially the actress who played Lulu. It’s not often I look at an actress and say: “My God she’s stunningly beautiful!” But I felt that way the moment the film opened on her.

    The camera work was innovative in not a showy way (ala Fritz Lang) but done very well. Lots of camera movement and angles (such as over-the-shoulder) that belie the early standards of film-making.

    I actually liked the bleak ending very much. I felt it was real and not preachy.

    WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH:

    At 133 minutes the film dragged quite a bit. I will admit that I often watched it at 2x and sometimes 4x speed. I don’t feel I really missed anything (I stopped for the subtitles).

    But…other than pacing issues…that’s about it.

    BOTTOM LINE:

    Interesting film, certainly. Fascinating in the way it explored all these relationships. The Actress playing Lulu? STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL (did I mention that?). You should give it a watch – but keep the remote handy to speed up the film once-in-a-while.

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