PANDORA'S BOX - DVD review

Louise Brooks is so electric, so seductive, and yet so naturalistic that critics and scholars have devoted volumes to explaining her magnetic screen presence.

csjlong's picture
Christopher
Long

Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc. Louise Brooks as Lulu. No two actresses of the silent era have been so celebrated for a single performance, not even Clara Bow as the "It" Girl. Falconetti's performance in Carl Dreyer's masterpiece "The Passion of Joan of Arc" is still spoken of in reverential tones by hardcore cineastes, but Falconetti herself has drawn scant attention from scholars, seemingly appearing out of thin air (actually, she was an accomplished stage actress) as Joan, and disappearing just as quickly (she never made another film).

Louise Brooks, however, refused to fade out gracefully even though she made only one noteworthy film after "Pandora's Box" (1929), the superb "Diary of a Lost Girl" (1929). Though Brooks, a former Ziegfeld girl, was a rising star in America, her Hollywood career never really got off the ground, in no small part due to what her employers might have euphemistically called "willfulness." After a bitter contract dispute, Brooks' career could easily have lapsed into obscurity if not for the fact that German auteur G.W. Pabst had spied her in a minor role in "A Girl in Every Port" (1928) and declared that she was his perfect Lulu. It was a bold decision. Lulu, the free-spirited creation of playwright Frank Wedekind, was a national icon in Weimar Germany. Were there no German actresses worthy of the role? As legend has it, a young Marlene Dietrich was waiting in Pabst's office to take the role when Brooks' acceptance telegram arrived. Kansas born Louise Brooks was now a German movie star.

Today the choice seems inspired. Louise Brooks is so electric, so seductive, and yet so naturalistic that critics and scholars have devoted volumes to explaining her magnetic screen presence. She is stunningly beautiful, that's no mystery, but there's far more to her mystique than that. Her radiant smile is one of the most indelible in film history, springing to life so suddenly and so fully, it almost has a physical impact on the viewer, not to mention a deadly effect on the men (and women) around her. Her piercing eyes flash the intelligence and indomitable spirit that have inspired generations of feminists to adopt Louise Brooks as an icon. But a sum of parts analysis cannot adequately explain the Louise Brooks phenomenon, the quality that once inspired Henri Langlois to exclaim: "There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!"

There is no single answer, but I will offer a simple one as partial explanation. Brooks was trained as a dancer from a young age, and her mastery of physical movement lends her a naturalistic grace that stands in marked contrast to the more histrionic stage actors in the cast. Others gesticulated; Brooks simply moved. So often it is the athletes, the dancers, and other "kinesthetically gifted" performers who really stand out on screen. Brooks was a splendid physical actor with a style of motion (and facial expression, and posture) all her own. To paraphrase Paul McCartney, there's "something in the way she moves" that attracts viewers like no other actress.

Brooks' independent spirit was also a perfect match for the role. Lulu is a working girl who entertains men not just for their money, but because she absolutely adores them. She especially adores the control she has over them, even if this control is ultimately proven to be transitory. She is the kept woman of the older and more respectable Dr. Schön (Fritz Kortner) who wants to maintain her as his mistress after he marries a more "appropriate" spouse. Lulu will have none of that, and arranges a scenario in which the good doctor, embarrassed in front of his fiancée and son, will be forced to marry her. And that's just the beginning. At the wedding celebration, Lulu also captures the heart of Alwa (Franz Lederer), the doctor's son, and even the hopelessly enamored Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). Both lovers will come in handy quite soon after Lulu is found guilty of her husband's murder and must flee to safety. Alas, there is no such thing as safety in Lulu's world, not for a working girl in Germany.

The film's indictment of German society is far-reaching, but is best seen in the parade of pathetic male protagonists who represent the patriarchy. Dr. Schön is a hypocrite and a weakling; his son Alwa is a coward and degenerate gambler. The closest thing Lulu has to a father figure is Schigolch (Carl Goetz), her once and future pimp. Everywhere Lulu goes, men want to have her or use her (often both), yet what makes her performance so memorable is the way that Lulu remains an autonomous figure even while being bought and sold by the men in power. Though married, sentenced to jail, and nearly sold to an Egyptian prince, Lulu still makes her own way through life, adapting as best she can, using whoever she can along the way. Whatever Lulu wants, Lulu gets, as best she can in a world where all the rules are stacked against her.

In the end Lulu flees to London, where she meets a strange fate that will strike many contemporary viewers as far too random by standard narrative conventions. For the sake of readers encountering "Pandora's Box" for the first time on this Criterion release, I will not reveal the ending. I will only suggest that it makes a certain perverse sense that the ultimate trouble-magnet would attract the ultimate trouble-maker. And the most marvelous aspect of it all is how even at the end, when Lulu is at her lowest point, she still has that sweet and innocent smile.

"Pandora's Box," like many classics, was not well-received during its release, though extenuating circumstances partly explain its cool performance. In Germany, Pabst was vilified for allowing a pretty little American girl to play German Lulu. Abroad, the film was brutally censored with the lesbian overtones of the Countess Geschwitz relationship removed in one edited version; in another, Lulu was found innocent and joined the Salvation Army to repent for her sinful ways. Lulu's real fate is grim enough, but only a true pervert would consign her to the Salvation Army!

The film languished in obscurity for a few decades until it was "rediscovered," with Henri Langlois serving as one of the film's most vocal champions. Once it was rescued from oblivion, it was soon safely ensconced in the critical canon, and remains one of the most analyzed films of the silent era. Just as Lulu was many things to many men, she has many thing to many scholars, from cultural critics to feminists to anyone else you can think of. And not just Lulu, but also Louise Brooks herself who enjoyed a resurgence in popularity along with the film. Indeed, critics often conflate the character with the actress, which is somewhat understandable given Ms. Brooks' own personal life. Long after her film career was over (her last role was in 1938), Brooks still gave a great interview and had also become a fairly accomplished writer. This boxed set pays ample tribute to the off-screen Brooks as well as the on-screen beauty.

You don't need to know anything about Louise Brooks to recognize her as one of the most dynamic performers ever to appear in front of a camera. It is tempting to say she is the entire reason this seedy melodrama works, but that ignores the fact that her only other major film ("Diary of A Lost Girl") was also directed by G.W. Pabst. Brooks was the talent, an incandescent one, but Pabst was the man who knew how best to nurture that talent and allow it to flourish on screen. The lackluster roles she took back in Hollywood after her return to America are proof enough of that.

Video:
The film is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image is picture boxed, like several recent Criterion full frame releases. Though the transfer is restored, it still exhibits some examples of damage from the source print, but this is unavoidable. The black and white contrast is very sharp.

Audio:
The DVD is presented with four optional scores to accompany the silent film, one of which is offered in 5.1, the other three in 2.0. The four separate scores are discussed in the Extras section below. Optional English subtitles are also offered for the German intertitles.

Extras:
This two-disc special edition is one of Criterion's best offerings of 2006.

On Disc One, the restored high-def digital transfer is accompanied by a choice of four complete musical scores, each so radically different it reinterprets the film. The Orchestral Score by Gillian Anderson is inspired by popular music of 1920s Germany. The Cabaret Score by Dimitar Pentchev underscores the film's saucy, exhibitionist tone. The Modern Orchestral Score by Peer Raben is intended as "an across-the-decades collaboration" with Pabst. Finally, the Piano Improvisation was performed by Stéphan Olivia at a live screening of the film in France.

The film is also accompanied by another score, or rather a commentary track by film scholars Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Ann Doane, both of whom are familiar names to anyone who has ever picked up a film text book. The heavy-duty film studies analysis may not be suited to everyone's taste, but I'm glad Criterion gave these two scholars free reign to demonstrate just how much a serious theoretical analysis can add to one's understanding and appreciation of a movie.

The features on Disc Two lavish most of their attention on the celebrated and enigmatic Louise Brooks.

"Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu" (60 min.) is a Turner Classic Movies documentary directed by Hugh Munro Neeley in 1998. The documentary, narrated by Shirley Maclaine, takes a fairly standard biographical approach to the subject but is still intriguing. It also offers this gem from Brooks herself: "I have a gift for enraging people. But if I ever bore you, it will be with a knife."

"Lulu in Berlin" (1984, 48 min.) is a documentary interview conducted by Richard Leacock and Susan Steinberg Woll. Though the film is dated 1984, the interview was conducted in 1971 in Brooks' Rochester, NY apartment. Brooks was 65 at the time, but even more than thirty years since her last film, she was every bit as magnetic a presence on camera.

Michael Pabst discusses his father in a lengthy interview (34 min.) conducted in 2006 for the Criterion Collection. Michael does not just reminisce about his father, but takes a serious and critical look at his life's work as well.

Disc Two also includes a Stills Gallery.

To top things off, Criterion has produced one of its best insert booklets, a 96 pager which features Kenneth Tynan's well-known 1979 essay about Louise Brooks: "The Girl in the Black Helmet." An essay by J. Hoberman and an article by Brooks about her relationship with Pabst are also included.

Film Value:
This two-disc Criterion release is the complete package, impressive not only for picture and sound quality but also for its scholarship. The commentary track by Elsaesser and Doane is stellar, and the four alternate scores seem almost to be overkill. Add in the two documentaries on Louise Brooks, and you have one of the finest DVD packages of the year. "Pandora's Box" is a masterpiece of German silent cinema, and Criterion's treatment more than does it justice.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
9
Film Value
10