Thoughts on Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora 1929/2006/2014)

If it weren’t for the orchestral soundtrack or the title cards, I wouldn’t’ve believed that Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora 1929/2006/2014), seemingly so modern, was first released in 1929. The acting is of course slightly more expressive than the naturalism of today’s films, but it falls far short of the almost miming caricature of acting found in many silent films. Louise Brooks is perfect as Lulu, the free-spirited young woman whose radiant beauty and pursuit of happiness is a lightning rod for a series of unfortunate events, to the detriment of herself and the men around her—and one woman, Alice Roberts’s Countess Geschwitz, the first prominent lesbian role in film history.

I watched the Criterion restored version, released in 2006, accompanied by an original score by Dominik Schuster, first performed in 2014. Schuster’s score takes the film much more seriously than its official genre of melodrama would suggest, carrying us buoyantly along during the fun parts, and tugging at our heartstrings when things go wrong, yet managing to never go overboard. Almost all the acting is very precise, often using little more than the minimum of body language to convey intention, mood, and even thought. Like Ingrid Bergman in Journey to Italy (Vaggio in Italia 1954, aka Voyage to Italy), but with better costars, Brooks is the clear star of the film, magnetically drawing our eyes no matter what she does. It would be strange if she didn’t, because she’s basically playing her own magnetic self.

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Brooks’s energy, enhanced by the expressionist vision of G. W. Pabst, even energizes scenes from which she’s absent: the famous backstage slapstick with a hapless Sigfried Arno as stage manager, Rodrigo Quast (Krafft-Raschig) and Schigolch (Carl Goetz) drunk behind the curtains of the wedding party, and the long casino sequence in which Alwa Schön (Francis Lederer) loses everything but Lulu. Roger Ebert said of Lulu, and Brooks, “Anyone who looks that great, and lives life on her own terms, has to be swatted down by fate or the rest of us will grow discouraged.” Good thing this film lives on.

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