Sunday, January 17, 2010

Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) 1929 ***

If you are familiar with Greek mythology then you know that Pandora’s Box was a large jar that contained many terrible things about mankind within—ills, toils, sickness, and hope. What most people don’t know is that when Pandora opened that jar she unleashed other horrors, most notably any film starring Pauley Shore or Rob Schneider.

Perhaps the best silent film ever (at least in my opinion), this 1929 G.W. Pabst masterpiece stars Louise Brooks as Lulu, a beautiful temptress who has the uncanny ability of ruining men. When we first meet Lulu she is the mistress of media mogul Schon. Lulu also has some strange relationship with a man who is her father, a former pimp, or both. Either way, she gives this Schigolch money. He proposes that she go on stage with his friend Rodrigo, but Schon doesn’t like this idea. Instead he asks his son, Alwa, to make Lulu the star of his song and dance show.

You know the saying "don’t look a gift horse in the mouth", well Lulu should have heeded it. After getting her a job, Schon tells Lulu he must end their affair because he is getting married. Lulu is not pleased—not Glenn Close unpleased, but angry nonetheless. As oblivious (or callous) as most men, Schon thinks it would be a good idea to bring his fiancée to the opening night of the show. Lulu refuses to go on stage and Schon orders her to do so. She says she won’t unless he comes back to her. He weakens and gives her a kiss just as his fiancée comes backstage. The wedding is off and Schon resigns himself to marrying Lulu. Immediately following the ceremony, Schon comes to believe that only misery lies ahead. He decides to kill himself and begs Lulu to kill herself, too. They struggle over the gun and when it goes off Schon is dead.

Next thing you know, Lulu is on trial for murder. This is where the title of the film comes from. The prosecution portrays Lulu as a modern Pandora, who unleashed destruction on Schon through her sexuality. Just as she is convicted of murder Alwa sets off a fire alarm, allowing her to escape. Why? Because Alwa knows she’s not guilty and is in love with her. Lulu convinces Alwa to arrange for her and her posse, Rodrigo and Schigolch, to escape to Paris. On the train to Paris they are recognized by a man who offers them a place on his gambling ship.

Months later we find the group broke due to Alwa gambling away all their money. If this isn’t bad enough, Rodrigo starts blackmailing Lulu for money so he can start his own variety show. Oh, but the bad times aren’t over yet, because the owner of the boat decides to sell Lulu to an Egyptian brothel owner—yes, this film was made in 1929! Fortunately for Lulu her lesbian friend the Countess Geschwitz loans her money. Unfortunately she gives the money to Alwa who uses it to cheat at cards—he’s caught and the boat erupts into a melee. The group escapes in the chaos and goes to London.

What awaits in the City of Fog is abject poverty, complete misery, and Jack the Ripper. On Christmas Eve, Schigolch decides he must have Christmas pudding. But how to pay for it? Lulu must hit the streets and find some customers. She picks up Jack the Ripper—so lucky is Lulu! Evidently Lulu can even tame serial killers because just as he’s about to kill her he drops his hidden knife. Run, Lulu, run! Nope. They go back to his room and Jack can’t resist the urge to use the knife—no more Lulu.

What makes this film so great is Brooks’ performance. When most people think of this film they don’t remember it as being a silent. This is due to the very natural and powerful way that Brooks acts in the film. She oozes sensuality and confidence. When Lulu wants something or someone she uses this very intense gaze that somehow gets her what she wants. She is the perfect fit to the overall theme of the film: woman as the victim of male sexuality. When she is the kept woman of a millionaire things seem great—she has nice clothes, a swanky apartment. But because she’s not the type of woman you marry she gets a consolation prize: a theater career. Then, when Schon can’t give her up and marries her she gets the blame when he kills himself. Due to this she has to take Alwa as her protector. Because he is a complete incompetent she finds herself up for sale to a brothel and making deals with lesbians. Next thing you know she’s reduced to common streetwalking to meet the needs of Alwa and Schigolch. This of course results in her death by a man driven by pathological sexual urges. I would rate Brooks’ performance in this film as the greatest in silent film history and one of the all-time greatest female performances in the 100+ years of cinema.

It is difficult to believe this film was made in 1929 because of its daring storyline. Fortunately the film was made a few years prior to the Hay’s Code because it would have never been approved for viewing in the USA. Another reason it’s hard to believe this was made in 1929 is because it doesn’t seem dated at all. The story seems relevant and believable by today’s standards.

This is a must see for all silent film fans, but anyone who loves intense cinematic storytelling should also watch it. A true cinematic gem.


  1. It is indeed. Very nice review. I feel like seeing it again now. She manages to trigger all the weaknesses of the men (and women) around her, while being entirely oblivious to the effect she has on other people. A very strong performance.

  2. Thanks for the nice comment. This is easily one of my favorite silent films ever. Louise Brooks I perfectly awesome as this vamp from hell.