Review of 1929 German film ‘ Pandora’s Box’ Starring Louise Brooks

Cover of "Pandora's Box - Criterion Colle...

Cover of Pandora’s Box – Criterion Collection

Summary: Is it really worth the curious peek or just an empty box? Louise Brooks‘ risky performance and the controversial subjects apart, I didn’t know what to feel about the movie

(spoiler alert)

Pandora’s Box is a 1929 German silent film about the life of Lulu, a beautiful, lively, gregarious but opportunistic and manipulative woman who gets everything she wants with her seductive charms. Her life takes a positive turn at first when one of her lovers’, a wealthy editor in chief Mr Schon agrees to marry her, and she is able to break into show biz. But after she kills Mr. Schon in retaliation, her life disintegrates till she is reduced to go back to her old profession as a street-walker.

A lot many viewers today regard Louise Brooks’ uncanny performance as bold, uncompromising and naturalistic. However, in 1929 soon after the film’s release, a reviewer from New York Times had said that her expressions were ‘hard to decipher at times’. After watching the film twice in two days, I too had similar question about Brook’s character Lulu: what is her ultimate aim? Sometimes  we find her confident and heedless of her actions but at others she radiates warmth and sympathy which contradicts her former emotions.

Actress Louise Brooks in 1927, wearing bobbed ...

Actress Louise Brooks plays Lulu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take Lulu’s relationship with Mr. Schon, for instance. At the stage show in Act 3, Ludwig Schon along with his fiancé oversee the backstage happenings. When Lulu finds her lover with his fiancé, she flips out. The camera pans on her face and she genuinely seems heartbroken in that frame. That act made me believe Lulu, despite her promiscuity and love for money, truly loved the rich editor in chief. But during act 4 and especially in Act 5 after the ruckus in the courtroom scene, I found myself confused about Lulu’s character. I remember Natasha’s character from War and Peace who took some reckless decisions driven by instinct but that character, despite being unpredictable, at least had consistency. Therefore we could anticipate to an extent what she might do and become more curious about the situation. I could not say the same about Lulu at points in the film, and this may be partly attributed to the fact that the movie is silent and therefore doesn’t have rather advantage of dialogs.Had there been dialogs, I would’ve probably got a better insight into Lulu’s personality. But I should credit Brooks for giving her best shot and making her character starkly different and almost contemporary for that time; her killer looks are something to die for, seriously.

I also didn’t find  some cohesiveness in the storytelling as well. Gustav Diessl‘s character, a brutal motif serving as a resolution to Lulu’s life, should’ve got more screen time. In fact, I was under the impression she would ditch Alva, the son of Late Schon and Lulu’s hapless lover, and make off with that waiter whom she was flirting for a moment at the ‘hospitable and discreet’ gambling den. I also felt the character of Schigolch could have had more development; it was ironical when Lulu ends up at a garret ( she had mentioned before that she wouldn’t want to go back with Schigolch to his old garret), but the initial scene when Lulu danced as Schigolch played his mouth organ could’ve been brought back towards the end ( like showing Lulu putting on an entertaining act along with Schigolch on the streets trying to fetch some money or attracting some bawdy men perhaps). For some reason, the initial unimportant scenes, though entertaining enough, are unnecessarily stretched. For example, when Lulu refuses to perform the skit, the director could’ve showed her running straight into the property room instead of having Schon coming to her, pressing her arm in front of the crew and ordering her to perform ending with Lulu telling Rodrigo that they’d do the skit they had planned, before getting into the room with Schon.

The film’s take on lesbianism is praiseworthy and Alice Roberts deserves credit for not shying away from the role. In fact, I heard she had pitched the idea of making the character of Countess Augusta a lesbian. She displays her affection so naturally, understanding the essence of her role. I remember an episode from the reality show Top Chef when one of the female contestants was highly appreciative of a fellow lady contender, and was extremely upset when the latter was eliminated. It was later told during the reunion episode that the two women had pursued a relationship after the show. And I saw the same behavior from Roberts’ character – two thumbs up for her performance.

Even though chiaroscuro is heavily used to the point that sometimes characters lose their facial features, I didn’t think there was any purpose to the lighting whereas in movies like Citizen Kane, the lighting created depth, style and personality. The background music is flat and for most part inconsequential and the reason I could not find a connection with the film could be attributed to this element; it seemed to say ‘watch the film like you watch any other film, and when the movie finishes, you leave’. For a movie that included controversial subjects, couldn’t the background music be more radical and risky instead of a generic orchestra?

Pandora’s Box seems to have gained critical acclaim over the years. But apart from Louise Brooks’ risky performance and the fact that controversial subjects were tackled, I did not know what I was supposed to feel after the movie. Is Pandora’s Box really worth the curious peek or is it just an empty box?

Verdict: BBB

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