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GW Pabst’s silent classic Pandora’s Box from 1928 is now on rerelease. It is his Weimar danse macabre, at the centre of which is Lulu, a beautiful woman who is a serial seducer and serial survivor, finally to fall victim to Jack the Ripper in London. This nauseous twist of fate is the final torsion of satire and melodrama for someone who is the plaything of her own fatal glamour.
The movie is based on the two plays by Frank Wedekind – Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1905). Louise Brooks plays the showgirl and adventuress Lulu, and her serene yet calculating beauty is framed in a severe black bob, of almost helmet-like shininess and purpose – the very last word in amoral cosmopolitan chic. She is the New Realist flapper of 1930s Germany. That hair is a brilliant signature of her identity. When she escapes the law, it is crucially changed to a more conventional style, combed back from the forehead – as a disguise, of course, and she is indeed almost unrecognisable like that. But when Lulu finally fetches up in London, the hair comes tumbling back down and the bob starts to reassemble itself, though as a dishevelled parody of its former bewitching glory.
Lulu is the mistress of a wealthy publisher, Dr Ludwig Schön (Fritz Kortner) whom she one day humiliates by entertaining an old man called Schigolch (Carl Götz) at the apartment he’s paying for; she describes him fondly to Schön as her “first patron”. In this apartment we can glimpse what appears to be a menorah, but with its central candlestick missing.
Disgusted with himself, and resolving to tear himself away from this involvement, Schön curtly tells her that he is engaged to be married to a high-born young woman, Charlotte Von Zarkikov (Daisy D’Ora). As a way of finessing a diplomatic break from Lulu, he encourages her to take part in a musical revue being produced by his son Alwa (Franz Lederer) with costumes designed by Countess Anna Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) – both of whom are in love with her.
But when Dr Schön brings his fiancee Charlotte backstage on Lulu’s opening night, she refuses to go on – refuses to dance for “that woman”. Agonised, intimately humiliated, infatuated, Dr Schön realises that he is still in her thrall, breaks off his engagement and later confronts Lulu with a revolver. It leads to a fatal catastrophe, weirdly presented in this silent movie. It is a gunshot that makes no noise: the musical score here does not represent it with a timpani blast. Schön just reels away. It causes a trial for murder, from which Lulu escapes with the help of a vaudeville strongman Rodrigo Quast (Krafft-Raschig) and finally hides out on a riverboat gambling den. And all this in the company of the infatuated Alwa, who is addicted to the woman who killed his father: doomed to a self-hating love.
Lulu is described acidly in court by the state prosecutor as being like that “Pandora” of classical mythology who had a box or jar containing all the evils of this world – Pabst contrives a cutaway to her defending attorney’s contemptuous face. What an absurd flight of fancy, he clearly thinks. And, yes, it is absurd, but not quite in the way he thinks. Pandora is dangerous and toxic, but she has been made that way by her admirers. Her beauty and her ambition are all that she has; she is no more conceited and manipulative than the men.
And when she is on the run, all that allure coagulates, as if through some hideous chemical reaction, into shame. First they wanted sex from Lulu, now it is money. Everyone, it seems, wants to blackmail Lulu now that there is a price on her head. The capital at her disposal – that brazen public sexiness – has turned into a terrible liability.
The London sequence at the end is a strange and mysterious coda, foggy, gloomy, with Salvation Army people trudging earnestly about. It is Christmas, the subject of sickly-sentimental sub-Dickensian references to Christmas trees and Christmas puddings. Jack the Ripper is not as he has come quaintly to be imagined – the sinister top-hatted toff silhouette in the mist. He just looks like a desperate, scruffy, homeless man, who manages to persuade kind-hearted Lulu to spend some time with him, despite the fact that he doesn’t have any money. It’s extravagantly sexual and mad, and Lulu is herself as Scott Fitzgerald might have described her: beautiful and damned.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Pandora’s Box review – intensely erotic silent-era classic | Film