Pandora’s Box (1929)
Director: G. W. Pabst
Cast: Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Francis Lederer
Synopsis: The rise and inevitable fall of an amoral but naive young woman whose insouciant eroticism inspires lust and violence in those around her.
From the opening scenes of Pandora’s Box, we’re left in no doubt about how the effervescent Lulu makes her way in life. She’s a hooker, working with a lurid old man named Schigolch (Carl Goetz) who may or may not be her father, and she works out of a modern apartment which sees a steady stream of men flowing in and out. One of her clients is the wealthy Dr. Ludwig Schoen (Fritz Kortner) who is clearly besotted by Lulu, but is engaged to be married to Charlotte Marie Adelaide (Daisy D’Ora), the daughter of the Minister of the Interior.
It’s not difficult to see why he’s so taken with Lulu. Even from a distance of more than eighty years, Louise Brooks’ captivating looks still have the power to enchant. In Pandora’s Box she possesses a childlike innocence despite her profession, and although she’s ultimately the architect of her own downfall, you get the impression her fate is an accident of passion, a ruthless consequence of blind fidelity to her emotional impulses rather than divine retribution for her dissolute lifestyle and questionable morality. Schoen and Lulu are palpably unsuited, and he knows it. But, unable to resist his urges, it’s not long before he’s having a fumble with Lulu in a cluttered dressing room, an encounter that is witnessed by both his fiancee and his son, Alwa (Franz Lederer).
There’s an air of inevitability about it all, which isn’t the fault of the movie as much as the actions of the characters. Everyone seems to be motivated purely by self-gratification. Even those in positions of power have few — if any — scruples. Next to Lulu, Alwa is probably the most sympathetic character if only because he shares her childlike naivety about those around him. He, too, is held in her spell, and when she (sort of) accidentally kills Schoen, and it looks as if she will be imprisoned for his murder, he is the one who aids her escape in the confusion that follows a staged fire alarm. The couple board a train for Paris, but they’re recognised by the dastardly Marquis Casti-Piani (Michael V. Newlinsky) who warns them away from the city and offers them refuge in a more ‘discreet and hospitable’ place. You just know it’s going to end badly, but then you’re a lot wiser than Lulu and Alwa…
There’s a lot going on in Pandora’s Box, and most of it is pretty dark. The movie dwells on the darker reaches of the human psyche, and dispassionately records its key characters’ inexorable slide into addiction and penury. The plot reads like that of some lurid potboiler, but director G. W. Pabst’s artistry helps it to transcend these tawdry roots, and lends it a quality that would be missing if a lesser director had been at the helm. Having said that, the film is a product of its times, and its stately pace is something of a slog at times, largely because many of the characters remain stubbornly one-dimensional.
(Reviewed 5th July 2012)