Almost ninety years of age, yet so ahead of its time.
I went to see the remastered version of GW Pabst’s 1929 silent classic Pandora’s Box today.
Having never seen anything silent other than early Laurel and Hardy episodes when I was very young, I was intrigued about what I was about to see. I expected an awkward, over-the-top, hand-flapping, overacted glorified play to compensate for there being no speech. And I’m happy to admit I was wrong. Pandora’s Box is ahead of its time in so many ways and you actually forget the black and white element is even there.
The main character is Lulu, a beautiful woman who is dangerously seductive and has a knack of surviving the most challenging circumstances. Her demise at the hands of Jack the Ripper in London at the end of the film is a clever twist and solidifies what is already suggested throughout the film - that her glamour is a double-edged sword and ends up being fatal.
Louise Brooks plays the wild showgirl Lulu with her iconic black bob that transforms throughout the film to reflect her situation. Her performance is vivid, energetic and confident as she hooks in countless men with her smile. The supporting cast are equally sensational with fantastic performances from a plump acrobat who has great plans for himself and Lulu, an unforthcoming lesbian who shares a special understanding with Lulu and an eccentric old man who may or may not have been Lulu’s father.
The film opens with her flirting with the man who has come to read her meter. She is soon after visited by an old man who seems to be her father or her boss. She affectionately sits on his lap, dances for him and pours out alcohol until they are disturbed by a man who has his own keys. It is heavily implied that he is rich and is paying for the lavish apartment. It’s clear Lulu isn’t a prostitute but financially benefits from her various relationships with men. The man, who we discover is a newspaper editor, tells her he is getting married so their affair must end. From there, many twists and turns take place, seeing Lulu in a range of predicaments.
While not necessarily innocent in a lot of her encounters, she’s a particularly endearing character and you find yourself rooting for her despite her promiscuous intentions at times. An example of this is the look she shoots at the editor’s fiancé after stealing him from her, wicked and cold.
The restoration of the film is fantastic, especially considering how little they had to work with – apparently only three versions of the film existed, each as damaged as the last.
Interestingly, many believe this to be the first international LGBT film. Lulu’s relationship with her lesbian friend is undistinguished but director Pabst implies there is more going on when they dance together and it looks as though she will be the next to be seduced by Lulu’s enticing smile before they are interrupted.
Overall, in all honesty I did not expect Pandora’s Box to be for me. Despite, in my opinion, the ending leaving a little to be desired, it was an end-to-end entertaining film. And even though there isn’t much for me to compare it to in its genre, I can see why it would be considering one of the defining films of its era.
I would recommend going to see it for a plethora of reasons. One of those is that it does a fantastic job of telling a story without leaning heavily on dialogue. The occasional subtitle screen does appear but so much of the film is easily interpreted without. And a final reason you should go and see Pandora’s Box is that it is clearly a trailblazer in film. From what I can tell from research, it is the first huge film to celebrate women’s sexuality as equal to men’s. To expand on that, there aren’t many films from this era where men are punished for their exploitation of women, something that features heavily here.