This project began when I tried to accomplish something a little ridiculous. I was curious how many years I’d seen movies from. And, much to my surprise, I’d seen at least one movie from a shocking amount of years. Basically from 1920 to the present, with only two years that were missing. So, I decided to try out this project, and fill in some gaps while also looking for movies that were actually a little stronger for some of my weaker years. And one of those years that I ended up having a gap was today’s year, 1929. I looked around at some of the more popular films of the year, and I had to admit I was struggling a bit. I feel like I probably should have seen Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera by now, but I wasn’t sure quite how to handle a narrative-less film on this project. I’m not sure what I really would have to say about Un chien andalou. I could’ve made my first foray into the world of Hitchcock on this feature by taking a look at Blackmail, but it seems like that film has a reputation for being a tad boring. And, while I really appreciate the Marx Brothers, and sadly it doesn’t seem like any of their films are going to be featured here, the Cocoanuts just isn’t one of their strongest works, even though it would have been the first talkie I discussed here. But then I came across a film that seemed very much up my ally. We’re travelling over to Germany once more for this week’s film, G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box. And, thankfully, this wasn’t just a case of desperation. Because I really loved this movie. It’s twisted and sordid melodrama that just keeps getting crazier and crazier until the final moments, and its weirdly over the top, almost soap operatic quality is exactly what I was looking for.
The film is an adaptation of two plays written by German playwright Frank Wedekind which told the misadventures of a wild young woman named Lulu who cavorts around Germany, getting into all sorts of bawdy situations. The plays were quite popular, and ended up being adapted into other films and operas before Pabst took a swing at the story. And, because the stories were so popular, there was a great pressure to find the perfect Lulu. But he succeeded when he found Louise Brooks, an American actress and dancer who he acquired from Paramount. Brooks was able to carry a film which relied heavily on her own charisma, but as seems to be the case with a lot of the movies I’ve discussed for Cinematic Century, it wasn’t really highly regarded when it came out. People found it too melodramatic and slight. But, as time went on it ended up becoming considered one of the classic of the silent-era, and Pabst’s work specifically. And I can see why that change in opinion has occurred, because this movie is a whole lot of fun.
Pandora’s Box follows the trials and tribulations of a young woman named Lulu who is living in Germany at the turn of the century, doing whatever she pleases. She’s the mistress of a respected newspaper publisher, and uses his money to have a life of leisure and debauchery. Her life seems to be going pretty well, until one day she’s suddenly visited by a strange older man named Schigolch. She refers to him as her “original patron,” but what their true relationship is never explained, all we know is that he introduces chaos into her life. Such as suggesting that Lulu throw in with him and a strange promoter named Rodrigo who wants her to join his circus. And, right on time, as Schigolch is visiting she’s called on by the publisher, Schon, who has some bad news. He’s decided to ask his legitimate girlfriend to marry him, and will be ending his relationship with Lulu. She becomes distraught, and seeks help from one of her best friends, a man named Alwa who turns out to also be Schon’s son. Alwa is putting on some sort of variety show, and when Schon returns home to find Lulu lurking around with his son, he demands that his son add Lulu to the show to get her out of his hair. It works pretty well, and Lulu throws herself into the show, gaining a modicum of fame from it. However, when Schon thinks that everything has been going well enough he decides to bring his new fiance to the show, and disaster strikes. Lulu flies into a rage upon seeing Schon with this other woman, and refuses to go on, grinding the show to a halt. Schon tries to go talk with Lulu to calm her down, and she ends up seducing him. Schon’s fiance catches them in the act, and calls off the engagement, leaving Schon no choice but to marry Lulu instead.
Schon and Lulu are then married, and we see the lavish reception that they’re thrown, full of drunken revelry. The party seems to be a high-class affair, except for two guests. Schigolch and Rodrigo. They’re at the party, getting drunk with the help, when they decide to go hang out in Lulu’s bedroom. She catches them, and the three decide to just goof off in there, until Schon comes in an is mortified. He creates a huge scene, irritated with his new wife’s debaucherous behavior. Schon takes out a gun and threatens Schigolch and Rodrigo, who flee in terror. Schon and Lulu get into a huge fight, and he threatens her with the gun too. The two struggle over it, and in the struggle Schon is shot and killed. Lulu ends up being arrested and put on trial for manslaughter. She relies on her charisma, but it isn’t enough, and she’s found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. However, Schigolch and Rodrigo save her by causing a fire-alarm to go off, and in the confusion they flee with her. She heads home to pack, and ends up running into Alwa, who admits that he’s in love with her. So, they decide to run away with each other. And Schigolch, Rodrigo, and a rich Countess named Geschwitz who is also enamored with Lulu. The motley crew then board a train, and flee Germany.
However, on the train Lulu is recognized by a fellow traveler, a man called Marquis Casti-Piani. He essentially blackmails the group, telling them that Lulu is too wanted, and she needs to hide somewhere secret, like the illegal gambling ship that he run. So, the crew start living on the casino ship with Casti-Piani for several months, until he grows bored with them and decides to sell Lulu as a prostitute. She of course doesn’t want any part of that, so she and Alwa come up with a plan to flee. They’ve all grown quite irritated with Rodrigo in these months, so they end up having Schigolch murder him, and when the police arrive to deal with this Lulu, Schigolch, and Alwa flee from the ship, apparently leaving Geschwitz behind, and they continue on their way. Eventually they find their way to London, living in a hovel together and suffering through a very cold winter. On Christmas Eve Lulu decides that they can’t survive this way anymore, and she sends Schigolch and Alwa out so she can make them some money as a prostitute. There’s only one problem. The customer that she finds ends up being Jack the Ripper. She brings him back to their hovel, and even though she temporarily charms him, it’s not enough to keep him from his dark urges. Alwa is unaware of all of this, and finally gives up on this insane life of his, abandoning Lulu and Schigolch to join up with the Salvation Army while the woman he threw his life away for is being killed by Jack the Ripper on Christmas Eve.
This films is completely melodramatic, to the point that it basically becomes a soap opera. And I love that about it. It’s a completely crazy story, just a series of scandalous behavior and crimes, but it’s made with such care that it’s impossible not to like it. And it’s all held up by a truly wonderful performance from Louise Brooks. It makes sense that Pabst was worried about finding the perfect person to play Lulu, because the entire film hinges on the charisma that that character would have to exude in order to get past the fact that it’s a story about the kid of people that the majority of people would find despicable. And yet, you’re completely drawn into Brooks’ performance, and become completely enamored with Lulu throughout the film. She just keeps using people, manipulating them to her own will, and destroying basically everyone she comes in contact with, and yet, you get it. She seems like the kind of friend that you would regret spending time with before and after, but during you’re having a blast. Lulu gets an insane string of bad luck in this story, especially when we get a last minute addition of Jack the Ripper to this story, but Brooks’ eternal fun-loving spirit helps keep things from getting to dreary. Pabst’s direction is, honestly, just fine. There’s nothing too showy about the film, and it’s for the most part made in an adequate, if not occasionally staid, manner, but the film really becomes so enjoyable from the ludicrous plotting, and the wonderful performances.
Because I feel like this film probably was a hard sell. And I think that for the same reason that I loved this movie. It’s a story about a bunch of dirtbags. That’s not a judgement call on the way they choose to live their lives, but they certainly aren’t the polished and respectable people that we so often see in stories. No these are lived in characters, full of flaws, and willing to embrace them. They drink, they gamble, they sleep around, and they’re not afraid to kill. But, they aren’t necessarily bad people. They have senses of honor, they try to help each other, and they’re just trying to survive. Yeah, their primary focus is in staying alive and happy, mostly thinking of themselves, but they aren’t actively villains. They’re just kind of self-centered and live lives of debauchery. And they’re the protagonists. This film is really going to set the tone for the rest of this project, because if there’s one great theme to the types of stories that I find myself drawn to, it’s those revolving around people who are kind of the worst. They aren’t traditional protagonists. They aren’t necessarily honest and pure heroes. But, they aren’t cackling villains either. They’re real people. And most people are kind of shitty. It’s refreshing to see that idea put forth so frankly, and without any serious judgement. I don’t think that this is a film designed to shake your head at, lambasting these characters for their sinful choices. It’s a movie about real people, getting caught up in their weaknesses, and trying to keep their heads above water. And there’s really nothing more real than that.
Pandora’s Box was written by G.W. Pabst and Ladislaus Vajda, directed by G.W. Pabst, and released by Sud-Film, 1929.
Categories: Cinematic Century