Pandora's Box (1929)
August 21, 2015 12:06 PM - Subscribe

Louise Brooks stars in this 1929 silent film as the fiery, brash, yet innocent showgirl Lulu, whose beauty and vivacity has a devastating effect on everyone she comes in contact with. Available to stream commercial-free on Hulu or on YouTube.

Part of the Criterion On Hulu film club. This film was streaming for free on Hulu this week as part of Criterion's weekly free film festival. You can vote on next week's film here: Criterion Free Movie Of The Week
posted by Ian A.T. (9 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
  • The soundtrack for this discussion.
  • So 1929 is pretty late for a silent film and it totally shows, right? The dynamic framing, the crisp film stock, the moving camera, the naturalistic performances…if you saw this playing in a bar, you’d be surprised to learn that it doesn’t have sound.
  • And actually, it being so close to a talkie yet still silent was more annoying to me than if it were an older silent film. Sure, the older films had over-the-top acting, but all the manic gesticulating sold the action on screen without needing sound. Here, there are just subdued conversations happening on screen that you can’t hear. I certainly didn’t dislike the film, but it being silent bugged me in a way it doesn’t in, say, Faust or Sherlock Jr.
  • Of course, some vestiges of the Silent era still remain:
    "Hey, Mr. Pabst…we’ve already filmed two minutes of Lulu having a temper tantrum, that’s probably enough to get the point across that she’s upset, huh?" "I hear what you’re saying, and I don’t disagree, but just to be sure…let’s shoot another five minutes of it."
    Some of the scenes here, like the above and the two drunken friends goofing off in the bridal chamber, are just interminable. This is a two and a half hour movie and I’d guess there are less than ten scenes in it. Oof.
  • I was surprised by how playful Brooks is in this film. All the homages you see depict her as a dark-eyed vampiric femme fatale but here she has an infectious enthusiasm that’s very endearing.
  • Louise Brooks has such an interesting place in film history, too, in that she’s had basically the same level of fame for almost a hundred years despite not really having an iconic role or being in an iconic film, and despite the fact that much bigger stars of her era like Clara Bow or Lillian Gish are remembered mostly as names. But say "Louise Brooks" to anyone casually interested in film or fashion or the Roaring 20s and they’ll immediately see in their mind that black bob and those long strands of pearls.
  • Speaking of her bob, I thought the "disguise" haircut she has when they’re hiding out in the underground casino was super-cute. I’d never seen her without her more severe look, and it really suited her.
  • Oh, and while we’re being superficial, let me be egalitarian in my superficiality and say that Alwa was really good-looking (and he had a very eventful life, dying filthy rich in 2000 at the age of 100.)
  • There was a shot in this film that almost moved me to tears, not because it was tied into the emotional beats of the story but just because it was so breathtaking and so perfectly realized. Of course you know the shot I’m talking about. Not only do I consider this one of the great all-time villain intros, I love that we don’t know that it’s a villain intro until later in the film!
  • As for the ending, my reaction was mostly: "Well, that certainly took a turn…" I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but part of me loves me just how it goes all-in on its grim trashiness. For better or worse, the film certainly doesn’t half-ass its ending.
  • One thing that’s interesting to me about the film is how it’s still a tragedy in 2015, but maybe not the same tragedy that they set out to depict in 1929. To me, the tragedy of the film is that poor Lulu was essentially innocent, doing very little wrong as these obsessed men wrecked their lives on her shore. She deserved very little of what happened to her; she just possessed that combination of vivacious and attractive and in need of protection that brings out the self-destructive (and Lulu-destructive) creep in some men. The view that the film seems to be implicitly if not explicitly pushing, that Lulu was complicit in her downfall in any real way, is just grody.
Hmm, my comments are somewhat negative, but I really did enjoy the film. It didn’t really speak to me, but I’m glad I watched it.
posted by Ian A.T. at 4:10 PM on August 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'd say that Beggars of Life is her most important film, well worth watching.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:16 PM on August 21, 2015

So 1929 is pretty late for a silent film and it totally shows, right? The dynamic framing, the crisp film stock, the moving camera, the naturalistic performances…if you saw this playing in a bar, you’d be surprised to learn that it doesn’t have sound.

Very much agreed. This became the defining feature of watching the film for me. I've never watched a Pabst film before, so I incorrectly came in expecting something more expressionistic in the vein of Murnau or Lang. For many of the reasons you mentioned, it felt "slick" and "Hollywood" in a way that ended up distancing me from it (well, that and the melodrama and the icky gender stuff that you mention).

The seamlessness is frequently impressive, though. There are many scenes of chaos that are remarkably legible (particularly in the backstage scenes early on) considering everything that's going on in the frame. Very few shots call attention to themselves. The focus is on the naturalistic performances and the storytelling which, when it's this story, didn't leave me with much.

Many of the links I've seen note that the film is based on Lulu, a Frank Wedekind play. I haven't seen any of the links note that Wedekind's other famous play is Spring Awakening, which was adapted into a hit Broadway musical about a decade ago.
posted by HeroZero at 5:21 PM on August 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you guys will indulge me a little bragging about my astute observational skills, I watched the first hour or so of this movie getting increasingly annoyed with the dinkely-dink music before it occurred to me, "Yeah, this is a silent movie. I don't have to listen to that." I had it on REALLY LOUD for some reason. It wouldn't be fair to judge the film on that, but I just want everyone to know that I was getting mad at a silent movie for being too noisy and it took me about an hour to think of a solution.

I also sometimes have a problem with morality tales like this because a) I'm not really a fan of morality tales as a rule, and b) especially not with moralities like this.

And holy cats, yes, that ending. Even by melodrama standards, that was strange and over the top and seemed sort of disjointed, like maybe that aspect should have been the story in itself. Anchoring a fictional story to some historical event as a plot twist could be done well, but it just didn't work for me in this case. The intro scene was excellent, but apart from that, I actually thought that plot turn was a little bit funny, and I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to.

But there are a lot of things to like about it, still. The scenes really are coherent and sometimes visually stunning, and I'm really glad I watched it too.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:21 AM on August 22, 2015

Louise Brooks and the cinematographer are the heroes of this. It's so lovely.

Agreed that the plot/morality/script is kind of a miasma of BS of ladyhood.
posted by Gucky at 6:00 PM on August 23, 2015

Wow, I am in love. Whatever the faults of the moralizing and melodrama here, Brooks is just mesmerizing. And has an actress ever been photographed better in a film? She just radiates.
posted by octothorpe at 5:21 PM on August 26, 2015

Ian A.T.: So 1929 is pretty late for a silent film and it totally shows, right? The dynamic framing, the crisp film stock, the moving camera, the naturalistic performances…if you saw this playing in a bar, you’d be surprised to learn that it doesn’t have sound.
Totally. I was very surprised by how "modern" everything looked. The furnishings, the clothes, etc. My internal "Platonic ideal" for "silent movie" has everything looking very old-timey and Victorian.

One reason might be that, at least in Europe, what was new in 1929 might still have been in use 25 years later. So for those post-war movies of the late '40s and early '50s only the clothes might have really changed. Even in Cléo from 5 to 7 some 33 years later, while there were parts that were obviously of the '60s, other things wouldn't have looked out of place in this movie.

Another thing I couldn't get over is how the movie dragged. I got to the wedding, thought I was probably three-fifths done with the movie, and it was closer to a third. It was fun to see a story told mostly visually. Even though the narrative gets pushed along by title cards in a few places. It puts The Naked Island in a whole new perspective for me.

The one thing I couldn't figure out is why it was so important to the story that Lulu was Jewish — or was it supposed to be Schon, perhaps that was his apartment and he bought the furniture — that Pabst ostentatiously included a menorah in the background in the first act. It never seems to come up otherwise. I read one review that speculates that Pabst intended an anti-Semitic message with the movie, but if it's really there it's a dog whistle I can't hear.

Anyway, I thought this was a fascinating picture, although I'm not sure I'd say I liked it.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:14 AM on August 27, 2015

I agree that the film dragged; 133 minutes seems about 20 minutes too long, there was a lot in the second half that probably could have been cut. Everything after the escape seemed to have a much slower editing style.

My internal "Platonic ideal" for "silent movie" has everything looking very old-timey and Victorian.

Part of that is that so many silent movies were historical dramas. A lot of the biggest ones were westerns, Civil War Dramas, Medieval adventures or biblical epics.
posted by octothorpe at 6:09 AM on August 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't know what soundtrack the Hulu version used. When I saw it on TCM a few years back, it was classical. I know the Criterion DVD offers a choice.

I agree that it feels long, but I found it weirdly compelling. Plus there's the surprise at some of the plot twists and relationships. And the ending ... Yikes.

This is not a movie that I can recommend to most people I know, but I do like it.
posted by pmurray63 at 12:02 AM on August 31, 2015

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