Welcome to another Film Friday and the launch of a new series of posts highlighting films released in 1929! In the title, I refer to 1929 as a year of firsts and lasts. I’m primarily speaking of the transition to sound, which went into full swing by 1929, and had every major studio technologically converted to the process — most notably M-G-M. Stars we’ve covered here, like Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, made their sound debuts. But the year wasn’t completely all-talking just yet — 1929 also saw the slow burning off of the silent films, which essentially ceased production by the time the year was over. The few films I’ll be featuring here (both talkies and silents) show an industry on the cusp of the biggest turning point in cinema history. So how do the films of 1929 stack up? I’m just as curious as you are to find out! Today’s post actually highlights a German silent film, translated in English as Pandora’s Box.
Pandora’s Box (1929)
The rise and inevitable fall of an amoral but naive young woman whose insouciant eroticism inspires lust and violence in those around her. Starring Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Francis Lederer, and Carl Goetz. Scenario by Ladislaus Vajda. Based on plays by Frank Wedekind. Directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst.
Pabst’s silent masterpiece has long been regarded as one of the best films of all time. Starring the American Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box is a 132-minute expressionistic film about a sensual young woman who brings bad luck to the men around her — until the bad luck finally catches up with her. The synopsis would be too long to post in its entirety, so I’ll just give you a (very) brief description.
Pandora’s Box is a long and action packed film that essentially covers prostitute Lulu’s manipulations of her lover (a doctor who’s engaged to another woman), her doomed marriage to said doctor — which ends in his death due to her lack of fidelity, her trial (and escape) following his murder, her seduction of the doctor’s son, their misfortune on a gambling boat, and her eventual destruction at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Based on two plays by Frank Wedekind, Pabst took great pains to present a Lulu that matched the depiction on the page. He found her in Louise Brooks, a stunningly erotic brunette whose iconic haircut has been used to represent every flapper since. Brooks should have had a big career in Hollywood, but a rift with Paramount Studios (she refused to come in and reshoot sequences for a silent film that was to be redone with sound) crippled her career. She was rediscovered by historians decades later, and her two films with Pabst — this and Diary Of A Lost Girl — were hailed as treasures. It’s easy to see why.
Brooks is remarkable as Lulu, a heroine that, though destructive, is not vindictive. She’s not the one-dimensional vamp that Garbo was forced to play in the early part of her silent career; no, Lulu is a girl whose sexuality and joie de vivre simply cannot be helped. In reference to the title of the film, Lulu is like Pandora — it’s not wickedness that inspires her to open the box and release evil into the world, but a simple naive curiosity. Lulu then becomes a tragic character herself, because although the ones around her are suffering most, she is not cold and calculating, She’s warm and loving — a woman of the ’20s — and when this openness does eventually come back to bite her in the metaphorical behind, it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
But we can’t give the character a complete pass. She’s not an innocent bystander. She’s aware of her sexuality and uses it to her advantage time after time. Often, this is to the direct detriment of those in her path — her husband, her husband’s son, her lesbian (yes — quite exciting to find in a 1929 film!) admirer, etc. So while Lulu may not set out to cause destruction, she’s aware of her actions. Surely at some point the character would have to realize the affects of her behavior, but like Pandora’s curiosity, some things cannot be changed. Part of what makes this palatable, in addition to the brilliant and nuanced performance by Brooks, is the understanding that Lulu has been shaped by others — she may be doing wrong (albeit, with naivete and joy) but she’s also been wronged. Again, she’s a woman of the ’20s.
Like the decade itself, Pabst’s film is very sexual. It’s this pervasive and engaging atmosphere that almost makes the film seem contemporary. Don’t misunderstand me — the unbelievable story, the antiquated look, and the grand performers are wonderfully 1929, but the beauty of the film and “the rise and fall” of Lulu strike chords that still resonate for audiences of 2014. And though it may be a silent film, I found myself completely absorbed in the story. I didn’t need dialogue. After all, who needs words when one has Lulu?
Come back next Friday for another 1929 film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!