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Pandora's Box: The Criterion Collection

Criterion Home Video

Starring Louise Brooks,
Fritz Kortner, Franz Lederer, Carl Goetz, Alice Roberts, Krafft Raschig, Gustav Diessl

Written by Ladislaus Vajda, from two plays by Frank Wedekind

Directed by G.W. Pabst


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Review by Mark Bourne                   


"One of the most enduringly fascinating women ever to appear on the screen."

— Andrew Sarris, The Village Voice

"'Pandora's Box' is a tour de force of cinematic eroticism, in which the mercurial nature of the sexual appetite is explored in set pieces that are at once divinely frenzied and meticulously controlled. With each viewing, a new dimension of Lulu's personality (and Brooks's) seems to emerge, and yet the film remains as indelibly strange as ever, capable of inspiring some critics to babbling gush — and reducing others to awed silence."

— A.O. Scott, The New York Times, June 16, 2006

"I have a gift for enraging people, but if I ever bore you it will be with a knife."

— Louise Brooks


There's a seductive, magnetic image about an hour into G.W. Pabst's 1929 German classic, Pandora's Box. Actually, there's an easy dozen such images throughout the film, but I have one in particular in mind. Cast in shadowy, noirish black-and-white, there stands a haunting, devastatingly beautiful 22-year-old woman. She's wearing a white wedding dress (torn off one shoulder), and there's a smoking gun in her hand.

She's Louise Brooks, one of filmdom's rare sui generis devastating beauties, as the blithely amoral showgirl Lulu, and that's a great moment in one of the great Jazz Age movies. Pandora's Box is an absorbing social-psychological drama from the silent-screen years, so we have only the musical score for audio. Yet somehow you hear that gun go off; you can smell the smoke. In the middle of it there's her face — that exquisite face — which seems made for close-ups. It's an image that pretty much snapshots our popular impression of Louise Brooks: an effortless eroticism, a sweet-faced delicacy that's too joyful for a femme fatale yet too knowing for a mere naif, and a danger to anyone who got too close for too long. Her short career, and the decades-long downturn that followed it, left a steady trail of smoking powder burns, most of them on herself.

Riding a new wave of almost cultish celebration and reappraisal of all things Louise Brooks, Criterion's superb two-disc DVD of Pandora's Box is a veritable "the Essential Louise Brooks" compendium. With it we get not only an edition of Pandora's Box restored to Criterion's exacting standards, but also two fine documentaries and critic Kenneth Tynan's enraptured 1979 New Yorker profile, "The Girl in the Black Helmet," primary documents of that reappraisal.

This DVD's release date in November 2006 commemorates Brooks's 100th birthday. So do, elsewhere and with a fervor that would give Brooks a wry chuckle, a new lavishly illustrated coffee-table book of photos and rare Brooksiana by film historian Peter Cowie, a museum exhibition, new printings of her own collection of blisteringly candid autobiographical essays (Lulu in Hollywood), and cable movie-channel broadcasts and film festival screenings of her key films, which peak with her signature performance in Pandora's Box. The Louise Brooks Society's well-stocked online headquarters is, in fact, www.pandorasbox.com. She's one of our most intriguing symbols of America's Jazz Age as well as Weimar Germany's liberated elegant decadence. Today, as we observe this most modern of all silent-era actresses, we note that her now-eponymous jet-black bob, that "black helmet" with scimitar side curls, all by itself has more "It" than all of Clara Bow ever did, even if no one recognized that at the time.

*          *          *

As Lulu in Pandora's Box, Brooks opens the story as the "kept" woman of the bourgeois Dr. Schön (Fritz Kortner), a well-off publisher. Although before he arrives home she entertains the meter reader and invites in old Schigolch (Carl Götz), a repulsive little troll of a man whom she variously identifies as her "first patron" and her "father." Whether he's her pimp, dad, or neither, their mutual filial affection is plain, and he pops up throughout the film as a sort of mentor and rescuer, the sole person she is steadfast to besides herself. Lulu is sexually assertive, but there's an innocence to her that is equally devastating to the men — and women — who find her irresistable. Everyone wants her, including Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) in what's reported to be the first overt lesbian subplot in cinema.

When ambitious Schön decides it's time to dump his mistress and marry his high-society fiancée, it tears him apart, but that doesn't prevent Lulu from manipulating events backstage at a show produced by Schön's son Alwa (Franz Lederer), a revue that Alwa has given to Lulu as a headliner. That's where Alwa and Schön's fiancée catch them in flagrante. Lulu's jaunty victory smirk is short-lived, though. Schön agrees to marry Lulu, but she behaves scandalously at their wedding. Now a broken and wild-eyed bridegroom, he advances on her with a revolver in his hand. Then comes the aforementioned gunshot.

Even at the trial where she is judged guilty for murder, Lulu can't help flirting through her widow's weeds at the prosecutor (he's the one who compares her to the mythical Pandora). The prosecutor gets so flustered by her magnetic appeal that by the time he recovers Lulu's low-life friends have staged a diversion and broken her out of the courtroom. On the lam, this time with love-lorn Alwa as well as Schigolch, she holes up in a gambling den where Alwa is doomed to lose everything he has to the tables.

Meanwhile, Lulu just avoids being sold to the owner of an Egyptian brothel. Soon enough, they make their way to London — a city that, like the final acts of the film, is a mélange of expressionist shadows and foggy nocturnal dread. It's Christmas Eve, the cold pours through their filthy garret's smashed window. Their dire straits force Lulu to hit the streets as a prostitute. A Salvation Army band playing carols moves through the fog, accompanied by a tall, handsome man who just happens to be Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl, who Brooks said was the one man on the set she found sexually attractive, and it shows). When he and Lulu encounter each other, he initially turns down her invitation because he has no money. She likes him, though, and invites him up anyway. In a scene that's beautiful, erotic, and perfectly underplayed, Lulu gives herself to him fully with a welcoming smile.

Give all due credit to Pabst, but Brooks pretty much single-handedly raises Pandora's Box above being just another doomed-bad-girl melodrama, the kind of one-tone moralistic parable so common in its time. Her deft, restrained performance lifts the script with layers of psychological shadings that wouldn't become common aims for years afterward. She doesn't choose to play Lulu as an evil vamp knowingly attracting then destroying men beneath her heels (Dietrich would have fallen into that mode with one snarly look), or as some pre-War "Candy," an innocent unaware of the way men and women react to her sexually catalytic presence. Instead she walks that tightrope so tactfully that with repeated viewings we see more within her and may interpret her actions differently with every nuance. She makes Lulu unfathomable, a well that always has more to give. Therefore, so is the film.

*          *          *

Although she was essentially forgotten since the 1930s, when she burned the last of her Hollywood bridges and then sowed their ashes with salt, by the end of the 20th century her rediscovery by gushing cinephiles stirred up a feverish revival of her striking image and a new appreciation of her career, life, and personality. Now at her centenary, that fever shows no sign of breaking. In her day, this charismatic dancer and actress from Cherryvale, Kansas didn't ascend to what might have been inevitable A-list status. That despite a full-body immersion in Hollywood high society and all the best it had to offer, including weekend parties at William Randolph Hearst's castle, a summer affair with Charles Chaplin, and lovers such as Greta Garbo and young William S. Paley, the founder of CBS. (Later, Paley quietly provided a stipend for her while she was an exile from the entertainment world.) In 1927, according to biographer Barry Paris, she was the fourth most written-about actress (in terms of major magazine articles) after Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, and Colleen Moore. Yet within a few years she was all but an outcast stuck with, at best, roles in scraping-the-bottom westerns. And it went downhill from there.

That unfulfilled promise was in large measure due to her headstrong independence as an unapologetic and unsentimental woman who chose her own paths. From the articulate intellect and wit we see in Brooks's own writings for Sight and Sound and other venues late in life, we get a sense that she was often the smartest person in the room, whether she was lounging at George Gershwin's rehearsal piano, partying in (and out of) the latest sex-and-the-city fashions, or enjoying the company of either tuxedoed swells or blue-collar stuntmen. She recalled, "I found myself looked upon as a literary wonder as an actress because I read books."

But actual wisdom came much, much later. As a chorine and fledgling starlet, not to mention a sexual and professional maverick, she was ambitious but reckless. Cocksure but difficult to the point of self-destructive. Willful but too damn temperamental and mercurial to commit to any situation — jobs, husbands, lovers, Hollywood studios — long enough to really get serious roots dug in. She described herself as "a born loner, who was temporarily deflected from the hermit's path by a career in the theatre and films."

Today, when most of her contemporaries have faded to obscurity, she emerges as a superstar in our pop consciousness, an icon of Roaring Twenties flapper chic and Weimar cinema, all in large measure due to those same reasons.

The extras within Criterion's DVD do a thorough and entertaining job chronicling her fast rise, her longer fall, and her unique popular and academic resurgence. The headiest meat of that history started when German director G.W. Pabst was so struck by Brooks's brief role in Howard Hawks's A Girl in Every Port that he insisted on casting her as the lead in his upcoming production, Pandora's Box. After a two-year search for an actress to play the well-established German character Lulu (a search comparable to that for Scarlett O'Hara), Pabst created something of a national scandal when he rejected Marlene Dietrich, a bona fide German star, in favor of this minor Hollywood American player. Brooks ditched Paramount (no love lost on either side) and headed to Berlin.

Pabst treated her with a regard and respect that Hollywood had never given her, even though she irked him by relishing the city's "life is a cabaret" energy to a degree that would make Sally Bowles blush. (She later made it up to him by giving the director one night of what she described in her essays as her greatest sexual performance.) While in Europe she made Pandora's Box and Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl, then Prix de Beauté in France, a project begun with René Clair. Because of these films — although they were not well-received in their time and played in the U.S. and elsewhere muddled by heavily censored recuts — her eventual status as a beloved screen favorite was only waiting to be carved into our cultural marble.

Louise Brooks was not a trained actress. Despite that — or maybe because of it — she brought to the screen a performance style that's regarded as years ahead of its time in its naturalism and lack of pretense. Watching her today, we're bowled over by how modern she is, how subtle and unaffected. It's as if she intuitively understood that there's more power in a focused laser beam than in a wide-open spotlight.

Similarly, in 1931 critics praised a hot new actor, James Cagney, for his naturalism in the role of a brutal mobster in The Public Enemy. In that DVD's documentary featurette, Martin Scorsese says that before he shot The Aviator he showed his cast The Public Enemy, and when Cagney's entrance arrived someone exclaimed "Modern screen acting begins." Critics today laud Brooks's performance in Pandora's Box for that same modernity, and she did it years before Cagney's entrance. So it stabs us in the heart to learn that The Public Enemy's director, William Wellman, who had directed Brooks three years earlier in Beggars of Life, originally offered her the role that Jean Harlow subsequently lead-ballooned in The Public Enemy. At first Brooks accepted the part, but then changed her mind and returned to New York.

Close your eyes and fantasize for a moment about an onscreen pairing of Jimmy Cagney and Louise Brooks. Movies, and perhaps the social order, would be different today somehow. It can be a bittersweet thrill when a DVD refines our views of a filmmaking era, its stars, and its accidental convergences or tauntingly unfulfilled possibilities.

The DVD

The Criterion Collection presents Pandora's Box in a double-disc package that will please long-time Louise Brooks worshippers and curious bystanders alike. Disc One is devoted to the film itself, with the top-flight extras filling Disc Two.

The film print is a 133-minute archival reconstruction from various 35mm sources, assembled by the Munich Film Museum in 1997. It's the most complete print currently available, and Criterion has refurbished it with their usual eye for detail and polish. It displays in 1.33:1 OAR, slightly picture-boxed. The black-and-white tonal range is generally sharp and deep, offering fine shadows, definition, and grayscale contributing to a pleasingly smooth appearance. It moves at a natural-looking frame-rate (always an issue with modern editions of the silent films). The original German intertitles are intact, and their English subtitling is optional. Granted, it's not one of the company's "pristine" prints. With the original film negative long gone, some remnants of ancient hairline scratches, minor blemishing, missing frames, and the varying quality of the source elements are still visible. That said, it's a stellar presentation and the film hasn't looked better, or been more satisfyingly reconstructed, since the advent of home video.

In one of the best bonuses we've ever seen on a DVD, Disc One also offers us four musical scores to choose from. The first is the expansive Orchestral Score, composer Gillian Anderson's approximation of what a European "cinema palace" orchestra might have played. Second is the Cabaret Score by composer Dimitar Pentchev. That one ranges broadly from the Kurt Weill style we associate with the dance-hall dives of Weimar-era Berlin, to slower, somber sections that sound more modern, at least to these ears. Thirdly, we get composer Peer Raben's strong Modern Orchestral Score, which underlines the film's own inherent contemporary qualities. And lastly there's Stephan Oliva's Piano Improvisation Score, with "impressionistic" accents that help bring out Lulu's, and Brooks's, unscripted wild-at-heart energy. Each of these scores provides its own emotional spin to the film, changing its tenor and its drives in interesting ways. Each gives you the feeling of watching Pandora's Box fresh no matter how often you've seen it before. They come in DD 2.0, with the Orchestral Score including an addition DD 5.1 suround option. And each comes with its own onscreen text block describing the styles, creative thinking, and inspirations behind it.

Also accompanying the film on Disc One is the audio commentary by film scholars Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Ann Doane. They offer a packed, informative dialogue through every scene, touching on Pabst's techniques, Brooks as an actress and her history with the film, and textbook pages of deep-crit analysis. It's often nearly parodical in its academic approach, but it does deliver the goods, so if you have a tolerance for sometimes vaporous film-school wonkage, dive in.

Disc Two kicks off well with Hugh Munro Neeley's Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu, an excellent hour-long documentary biography and appreciation produced for Turner Classic Movies in 1998. Written by biographer Barry Paris and narrated by Shirley MacLaine, it uses insightful interviews and abundant film clips to chart Brooks's life from her Kansas upbringing (including the sexual abuse from a neighbor at age 9, an incident that, as Brooks told Kenneth Tynan, "must have had a great deal to do with my attitude toward sexual pleasure"), through her career as a dancer, her controversial and often self-destructive course from Hollywood to Berlin, the poverty and desperation of her middle years, and finally her remarkable resurrection as an emblem of an era, an actress who didn't receive her due until long after the fact, and a sharp writer in her own right. On hand for testimonials are actors Francis Lederer (Brooks's co-star in Pandora's Box), Dana Delany (clearly a well-studied fan), and Roddy McDowell (a longtime friend), publicist John Springer, Adolph Green, composer David Diamond, Brooks's sister-in-law and niece, and others. Her friend Bill Kuein tells us that Brooks considered masturbation "the highest art form in the sexual area," and by the time we get to that statement we understand a woman whose assurance on that point was absolute.

Next up is Lulu in Berlin (48 mins.). It's Brooks's informal and fascinating sit-down interview with vérité documentarian Richard Leacock and Susan Steinberg Woll. Shot at the kitchen table in Brooks's Rochester, NY home in 1971, it features one of the few long interviews she ever did. It's a shame she didn't do more of them because here she's fiery, straight-talking, frank, smart, vain, reflective without being sentimental, sharp as a tack and hard as nails. She discusses her years as an up-and-coming starlet at loose on the New York, Hollywood, and European scenes; how she found herself in the film; her work with Pabst; Marlene Dietrich; and her life as a loose-living, hard-boozing woman with a lively past worth talking about. One moment of poignancy arrives near the end, when she reveals that she's tragically convinced that she failed at everything.

Created for this DVD in 2006 are two shorter interviews. One is Richard Leacock on Louise Brooks, with the documentarian chatting about his interview with Brooks 35 years earlier. It just tops four minutes in length, but he engages us with tales of her charm, her reclusion, the sometimes awkward circumstances of the interview, and her enduring allure. An omelet and a quart of gin are involved. The second new interview is Michael Pabst on His Father, G.W. Pabst (34 mins.), a dry but personal and informative retrospective by Pabst's son on his father's life and work. It's in German with English subtitles.

A stills gallery holds 50 images from Pandora's Box.

Finally, within the packaging's slipcase is a welcome 98-page booklet featuring a new essay by critic J. Hoberman, Kenneth Tynan's essential 1979 essay "The Girl in the Black Helmet," information on the four scores, and "Pabst and Lulu," an article by Brooks on her relationship with the director and her experience with the film.

—Mark Bourne



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