BFI Southbank, London
6 January 2017
There is always that little extra thrill of excitement going to the first silent film screening of a new year and the thought of what fresh delights are in store over the next twelve months. But starting the year with a silent of the quality of Pandora’s Box, screening tonight at BFI Southbank, there is also that niggling worry! Could this be the best film we see all year? But its too late, the lights are going down and the film is running so no choice now but to sit back and enjoy a classic.
Made at the tail-end of the silent era this was the first of two collaborations between Austrian director G W Pabst and Hollywood bad girl Louise Brooks. In preparing to bring to the screen an amalgam of two of author Frank Wedekind’s stories, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, Pabst had been searching for months for a leading lady to play Lulu. After seeing Brooks in Paramount’s A Girl In Every Port (1928) he attempted to borrow her from the studio but Paramount ignored him, failing even to tell Brooks of his interest until after she had quit the studio over a salary dispute. According to legend, Marlene Dietrich was in Pabst’s office ready to sign a contract to star in the film when word came from Brooks that she was free to take the part. The rest, as they say, is history, although it would take another 25 years until both the film and Louise Brooks’ performance in it would be recognised as the classic it is now held up to be.
In the film Louise Brooks plays Lulu, the mistress of wealthy newspaper proprietor Dr Schon (Fritz Kortner). When the aged and dishevelled Schigolch (Carl Gotz) turns up she warmly welcomes him (despite him openly taking money from her purse) but hides him when Schon arrives. Schon tells Lulu that he is to marry another woman and that their relationship must end but she is cheerily dismissive of this rejection. When Schon discovers Schigolch, Lulu introduces him as her first ‘patron’ and Schon furiously leaves. Schigolch now introduces Lulu to acrobat Rodrigo Quest (Krafft Raschig) who he wants her to join in a trapeze act. The following day Lulu goes to Schon’s house to see his son Alwa (Franz Lederer) and friend Anna Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). Although Schon himself is displeased to see Lulu again he tells his son to give her a role in the theatrical review Alwa is organising.
On the first night of the review all is going well until Schon arrives backstage with his fiancé. On seeing them together, Lulu throws a tantrum and refuses to go back on stage. While trying to persuade her, Schon is once again overcome with desire for Lulu but as they embrace they are discovered by Schon’s fiancé who walks out. Schon reluctantly decides to marry Lulu. At the wedding, Schon is disgusted to find Lulu entertaining Schigolch and Rodrigo in her bedroom. After chasing them out with a gun he then sees Lulu with Alwa who has now confessed his love for Lulu. Schon tries to force Lulu to shoot herself but in the struggle that follows it is Schon who is shot dead. At the subsequent trial Lulu is found guilty but before she can be jailed Schigolch and Rodrigo engineer her escape.
Lulu returns to Schon’s house where she meets Alwa who reaffirms his love for her and they flee together. Escaping by train they are recognised by another passenger, Marquis Casti-Piani (Michael van Newlinski), who demands money to keep quiet but who also takes them to an illegal gambling ship where they are able to hide out. With Alwa gambling away his money the Marquis attempts to sell Lulu to an Egyptian brothel while Rodrigo seeks to blackmail her to finance his new trapeze act. Just as Schigolch kills Rodrigo, Alwa is caught cheating at cards and he, Schigolch and Lulu escape by boat to London. Destitute, their only option is for Lulu to ply the streets, but her first client is Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl). Initially he is charmed by her and discards his knife but as they kiss he sees another knife on the table and stabs Lulu to death.
Although now hailed as a classic, Pandora’s Box was slammed by the critics on its initial release in 1929. German audiences were critical of the selection of an American actress to play ‘their’ Lulu and her performance received scant praise. Even worse was in store when the film was released in the US. New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall wrote “Miss Brooks is attractive and she moves her head and eyes at the proper moment, but whether she is endeavouring to express joy, woe, anger or satisfaction it is often difficult to decide”. Another critic wrote that of Brooks that she was “….one of the most eloquently terrible actresses who ever looked a camera in the eye.” And yet it is less than clear just which version of the original film these critics saw. The film suffered heavily at the hands of the censors so that in some versions the lesbian sub-plot disappeared, in others the character of Alwa was Schon’s assistant rather than his son and in still another version Lulu survived and ends the film by joining the Salvation Army (!).
Although Pandora’s Box did nothing to further Brooks’ career, she herself did little to help her own cause. When Paramount asked her back to shoot sound retakes from her last Hollywood film The Canary Murder Case she reportedly told the studio to ‘go to hell’. There followed two more films in Europe, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) and Prix de Beauté (1930), neither of which were particularly successful at the time (although both are now regarded as silent classics) and a few bit-parts in Hollywood talkies. But by the late 1930s her acting career was effectively over and she drifted into obscurity, working variously as a dance teacher, as an escort and even as a department store sales assistant.
And that might have been it. But in the mid-1950s her work was rediscovered by James Card the curator at the Eastman Archives in Rochester and by Henri Langlois from Cinematheque Francais, where a retrospective of her work was held after which Lannglois declared “There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!” Despite this renewed acclaim, Brooks rarely gave interviews, but she did become a noted film writer and her 1980 anthology ‘Lulu In Hollywood’ provides a candid and highly entertaining account of aspects of her life and career as well as a perceptive view of Hollywood and the film-making business.
Every viewing of Pandora’s Box just leaves me more perplexed as to why the film, and particularly Brooks’ performance in it, was so poorly received in its initial release. Perhaps there was the feeling that the star role should have gone to a German and perhaps the horribly censored versions did negate the films quality. But there was also the impact of the talkies when, despite silent film making being at its artistic and technological zenith, audiences suddenly wanted something more, something different, and Pandora’s Box simply became a casualty in this cinematic revolution.
And yet, seen today, Pandora’s Box is a bold and captivating film and Louise Brooks’ performance simply breathtaking. Playing the bright, vivacious but totally amoral and curiously vulnerable Lulu she dominates virtually every scene she appears in. Although the Wedekind plays on which the film is based came from an earlier era, Lulu is plainly a product of late-1920s Weimar Germany, a time when traditional social and cultural norms were being rolled back and a new permissiveness was taking hold. But to what extent does Lulu also reflect the hard drinking, hard partying, morally ambiguous Brooks herself? Over the years, the actress and the character she portrays have come to be seen as almost one and the same. Certainly Brooks plays Lulu with consummate ease and with a startling realism and believability. Displaying an almost childlike innocence at times, as when she laughs off Schon’s discovery of Schigolch in her apartment, she also perfectly captures Lulu’s conniving nature, most notably at the moment in which Schon’s son and fiancée discover her and Schon mid-embrace, when Lulu’s face is a picture of sadistic triumph.
Pabst, on first meeting Brooks, was apparently captivated by her which is perhaps a good thing as it meant that he was willing (albeit grudgingly) to put up with her hedonistic lifestyle during filming. But other cast members were less enamoured. Fritz Kortner as Schon reportedly detested Brooks and refused to speak to her. And yet this almost perfectly suited the storyline of a man so infatuated with Lulu, almost against his better nature and despite knowing the likely financial, social and personal cost this would invoke. Some of the scenes between them positivly fizz with this love/hate tension.
Schon, like every other man (and one woman) in the film falls under Lulu’s spell and nearly all seek to blame her for their downfall. And yet it is their own weakness that is their demise. As for Lulu, there is an almost inevitably of her own downfall as she meets Jack the Ripper. For those final scenes in the slum-like London garret, as Pabst sought to portray Lulu ground-down and at her lowest ebb, he apparently asked her to choose her favourite outfit from her own wardrobe for the scene, then he had it torn and dirtied, as Brooks said, “I went on the set feeling as hopelessly defiled as my clothes. Working in that outfit, I didn’t care what happened to me.” Almost from cinema’s earliest days, no-one of Lulu’s amoral character could be allowed to get away with life. Jack’s discarding of his own knife is just a temporary delay while Pabst’s filming of her death is masterful, no wild gesture or frantic struggle, just a close up of Lulu’s hand as it suddenly tenses and then fades as she is gone.
None of the male characters in the film elicit much of our sympathy but both Kortner as the uptight Schon and Carl Gotz as the creepy Schigolch play their parts superbly. Also impressive was Alice Roberts as Anna, apparently horrified by Pabst’s instruction to portray her character as having a repressed love for Lulu (in what may be cinema’s first lesbian sub-plot) but giving a superb portrayal of hopelessly unrequited love. The dance scene between her and Lulu at the wedding is particularly intriguing as, although Lulu clearly takes the adoration of all the men around her in her stride, she is visibly confused when she becomes aware of Anna’s feelings towards her. Also worthy of mention is Siegfried Arno as the much harassed stage manager who provides a lovely comedy vignette.
My only criticism of this screening came from the way the film drifted in and out of focus for most of the mid-section. At first I thought this was a projection issue but on re-watching the film on disc it is similarly out of focus although not as noticeable as on the big screen. I wonder if there is a better print copy somewhere out there?
Lastly, praise also goes to pianist Cyrus Gabrysh, apparently standing in at short notice, for his excellent accompaniment.