Judge Brett Cullum opened Pandora's Box because he heard there was some chicken inside.
"I learned how to act by watching Martha Graham dance, and I learned how to dance by watching Charlie Chaplin act."—Louise Brooks
In 1929 Louise Brooks fled Hollywood's Paramount studios and headed to Berlin to work under G.W. Pabst in Pandora's Box. Everyone told her it was career suicide, but the girl with the black helmet hair found the vehicle that elevated her from everyone's favorite flapper to immortal screen legend. The film stands out even today as a daringly dark, psychosexual journey which features incestuous love triangles, murder, prostitution, lesbians, and even Jack the Ripper bedding the heroine. Pandora's Box is a decadent classic that The Criterion Collection has thankfully named its 358th title worthy of the best treatment DVD can muster.
Facts of the Case
It's all about a girl named Lulu who nobody can resist. She's a dancer who seduces everyone to get exactly what she wants. Trouble is, Lulu shakes society to its core by using sex as a weapon, and the consequences are terrible. Like the mythical figure alluded to in the title, the girl seems to unleash hell anytime someone falls for her. A father and son are ruined, show business moguls topple over in disgrace, her first husband finds himself shot, and his son flees the country as a chronic gambler. Ultimately Lulu herself attempts a fatal trick with an infamous serial killer on Christmas Eve.
There has never been a role that defined an actress so much as Lulu did for Louise Brooks. The story came from a series of famous German plays, and director Pabst was severely chastised for casting an American in the lead role for his film adaptation. He protested that even a German actress such as Marlene Dietrich couldn't pull the character off like Louise Brooks, and the end result proves him right. Pandora's Box is an ensemble piece, but you'll walk away with one indelible image—Louise Brooks as Lulu. She's a revelation in the role, and she introduced a realistic acting approach to cinema that revolutionized cinema. Even though the film was silent, Brooks scrapped the melodramatic techniques of her peers in favor of playing everything for honesty and truth. Instead of conveying one emotion at a time, Lulu became a portrait of mixed feelings so complex you swear you hear her voice as you watch.
Pandora's Box is wonderfully designed and technically a flawless picture of the era. Pabst's camera techniques and skill easily put him up there with German contemporaries such as Lang, Wiene, and Murnau. Yet in contrast to those expressionistic visionaries, Pabst gives us a heady romantic tale firmly set in a tangibly real world with classic elements. He was a master of working with actors to tone things down when needed, but allowing the chaos to explode when he wanted it to. A control freak to the core, Pabst manipulated his sets to insure he got exactly what he wanted. He made sure Fritz Kortner used no restraint when manhandling Brooks during their confrontations in the film, and even destroyed a favorite dress of the actress to make her feel violated and defiled in the final sequence. Pandora's Box captures Weimar era Germany perfectly complete with sexually forward touches: including a father and son love triangle, and the introduction of the screen's first lesbian Countess Geschwitz (in American pronounced awfully close to "gay switch"). The film was mercilessly censored by the American film board, which didn't even allow these relationships be revealed, and changed the ending entirely to omit the serial killer. By 1929 standards this was a shocking piece that was contemptible and reviled by censors worldwide.
If there is one DVD company that can deliver Pandora's Box in a complete, gorgeous package, it's The Criterion Collection. Collectors will be happy to know the film has never looked better, and even more astonishing is how robust the sound is. The picture has been digitally polished, and even though inevitable blemishes remain the result is awe-inspiring. The release looks fresher than it ever has, and the transfer is as near perfection as we can expect from the source. There are four different musical scores to chose from including two orchestral treatments, a cabaret style, and improvised piano. The first orchestral traditional score can be played in either full surround or stereo, and the others are offered in two speaker modes. Each track changes your experience of the silent film, and it's pure genius to allow the viewer the option of several to fit the mood.
Extras are contained mainly on a second disc, and include several documentaries and a still gallery. First up is a 1998 biography of Brooks produced by Turner Classic Movie network called Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu. It's a very good sketch of the actress's entire life narrated by Shirley McLaine. Next up a forty-eight minute interview with Brooks herself filmed in 1971 conducted by Richard Leacock named Lulu in Berlin. We also get a 2006 interview with Pabst's son, and an extensive still gallery. On the feature film disc is an essential commentary provided by film scholars Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Ann Doane. They avoid the typical dry scholar analysis by engaging and debating each other throughout the film. Also included is a book of photos and essays on the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even though Pandora's Box contains sexy, sadistic scenes, it's still a silent film from 1929. The pace set at the 133 minute running time is not fast-paced by any stretch of the imagination, and modern viewers may have their patience tested. Certainly the rewards are great for those who can slog through the first half hour, because soon you forget its a silent film. It still feels drawn out, and eight acts seems a few too many to convey the story with any sort of economy. Sit back and soak up the sumptuous visuals when things get slow, because they never stay that way long.
This is how DVD is done for classical films, and you couldn't ask for more from the people who produced this package. Pandora's Box is a masterpiece of German silent cinema, and the lasting legacy of American actress Louise Brooks. You're not a true cinema fan until you've watched this title, and here's the edition to seek out. The transfer has never looked better, and the extras impart why the film is such an important entry into film history. And any chance to revisit one of the silver screen's sexiest sirens is a must-own in my book.
Pandora's Box is guilty of being sleek, sexy, and silent.
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Scales of Justice
• New and improved English subtitle translation
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