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Pandora's Box (1929)

Louise Brooks' face is a captivating subject. I wanted to see this film because I had seen stills of her face, staring down the camera with a compelling gaze. Pabst's film relies on the power of Brooks' face; she can gaze at the camera and make the viewer feel as if they are invited into that persona of Lulu. Invited into the persona, but not the real woman. For Lulu's smiles are all a product of what society needs out of her.

Pandora's Box is quite an exceptional film. It has layers of depth that take time to fully savor. Pabst originally wanted Brooks to play Lulu, but Paramount wouldn't allow her. After searching for a replacement, Pabst found Marlene Dietrich, but she was dropped as soon as Louise Brooks left Paramount. On Dietrich, Pabst said that her sexuality was too overt for the character of Lulu (Dietrich went on to play Lola in The Blue Angel). This is entirely true; Dietrich comes off as too knowing of her sexuality while Brooks never falls into any category of attraction. I think it's an unselfconscious brand of sexuality that Brooks possessed.

Pabst's film is a reflection of Germany's political atmosphere at the time. Depicted are high class men who are so set in their structure and a woman who exists in decadent chaos. This is seen in The Blue Angel as well, depicting a time in Germany when perhaps no ego really existed, only the super-ego and the id. Lulu herself is a character with no ego, she continually reflects what people want out of her. An entertainer entirely. When she's on trial, she plays to the crowd. It's a film with too many father figures and absolutely no mother figures. It's a film about how men treat women. It's truly a feminist film and it's a shame that it was panned upon first being released (this is a theme with my films this week; Spirits of the Dead was also panned).

Pandora's Box focuses on the character Lulu and her devious ways. She's a woman with no conscious, who moves from man to man, ruining each man's life. Dr. Ludwig Schon, about to marry a woman of society, continues his affair with Lulu despite everyone telling him to leave her. She is constantly accompanied by Schigolch, a man she insists is her father, though he could be her old pimp, and Rodrigo, a strong man who wants Lulu for his variety act. But Schon's son, Alwa, is infatuated with Lulu, as is Alwa's friend Countess Augusta. Pandora's Box is considered controversial simply because of Augusta's existence in this film, for she appears to have a strong attraction to Lulu. Alice Roberts was strong opposed to portray a character with such a sexuality, but this really works for her performance, as Augusta comes off as torn between what society has dictated she must be and what she really feels.

Seeing Lulu with Alwa angers Dr. Schon, but he insists that she perform in Alwa's revue. In spite, he also brings along his fiancee, which sends Lulu into a temper tantrum. She won't go on stage, so long as that woman's watching. To console her, Schon embraces her, just as his fiancee looks in on the two. So, Dr. Schon marries Lulu. At the wedding, chaos ensues due to Schigolch and Rodrigo's presence. Schon chases everyone out and then, handing her a pistol, insists that Lulu kill herself. When she refuses, he commands her to kill him, but she can't. A struggle ensues and when Alwa comes in, he finds his father bleeding to death. Lulu is put on trial, the ultimate form of entertainment, for manslaughter. She's found guilty but Schigolch and Rodrigo break her out. Lulu returns to Schon's house where she finds Alwa. Initially, he's disgusted to find her there, but he eventually confesses his feelings. They run off together, to Paris and London, but both cities find them in poverty and losing faith in each other. Eventually, in London, Lulu is forced to return to prostitution which disgusts Alwa to a point where he considers leaving her.

The film is exciting in that there is constant moving on screen, and there are incredible close-ups that would resurface in cinematography when Ingmar Bergman took to the scene. Initially, I felt that it was too long and that Act 7 could have been cut out, but the more I think about, the more I believe that every Act in this film is important. We have to see Alwa falling deeper into despair in Act 7, as his only income is gambling. We have to see Augusta sacrifice herself for Lulu. And the more I turn this film around in my head, the more I see that it is truly essential viewing.

Lulu plays what all men want out of her, what they need out of her. Dr. Schon is a Zeus-like figure who views his son as competition and Schigolch appears as a former lover rather than a father to Lulu; these are warped father figures who have control over other people, a reflection of the government systems that were in place in Germany at that time. Though Lulu is presented as a vile woman, she comes off as a sympathetic character, especially while in London. But men need her to pass off all their blame on her. Schon needs her to place all blame of his nefarious deeds onto her and when he wants her to kill herself, it's as if . . . these are complicated feelings for me. It's as if he wants her to be eternally tied to him, through death. As if he needs for her to be tied to him, even if he's dead. And it works for Schon, as Lulu is constantly hounded by the police. The scene in which she shoots Schon, it comes off as if Lulu is afraid of him, which I believe entirely.

At the trial, they relate the tale of Pandora's Box to Lulu's character. The lawyer states that the gods gave Pandora a box, which she unleashed onto the world. The point is that Pandora didn't create evil. The gods did. But by her releasing it into the world, it allows them to place blame on Pandora, much like men place blame on Lulu. Lulu doesn't create evil, the men she runs into are broken people who want to fix all their troubles onto her. This is a comment on how men treat women in general, as when they fix all troubles onto a woman, it isn't necessarily blame. All the female characters in this film can fall into a certain role. The woman with the Salvation Army is a saint, the fiancee a society woman, and Augusta as a woman. Even Augusta falls into a typical female role, by playing the victim when she has to kill Rodrigo (granted, he probably was going to hurt her).

Lulu is a non-conformist. She doesn't fit into any female role. She isn't a mother, she isn't a saint or a whore, and she certainly isn't someone's lover. By not falling into those roles though, she's punished for it. And it's not that she's punished for being a "bad woman", Pabst is above that. Society punishes her for not falling into a designated role.

When Lulu runs off with Alwa, they're a better match for each other in some ways. But Alwa expects a certain kind of woman out of her. Alwa's world is that of high class men who keep their status. By following Lulu, by following chaos, he falls into existential despair by realizing how ephemeral status is. He can never be that wide-eyed innocent youth anymore by coming to know what he would do if desperate and without money.

This is truly an incredible film and it's a shame that it wasn't rediscovered until the 1950's. Brooks' persona was masterfully crafted and this film is the shining testament to it. Also, it's a shame that Francis Lederer just missed out on becoming a star in America. Fascinating man.

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February 2013

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