Pandora’s Box (or Die Büchse der Pandora) is a 1929 German silent film directed by G.W. Pabst. As I mentioned in my review of The Artist, my experience with silent film is extremely limited, essentially consisting of Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, a handful of Chaplin shorts, and now The Artist. Thus, this was my first experience with a legitimate feature-length silent film from the silent film era. I was lucky enough to catch the screening courtesy of Milwaukee Film, who selected the film for their April members-only monthly screening. The event featured live musical accompaniment from acclaimed Swedish film score composer, Matti Bye.
Pandora’s Box tells the story of Lulu (Louise Brooks), a beautiful and flirtatious young woman who attracts the attentions of every man who crosses her path, and eventually brings them all to ruin. The narrative progresses through five or so distinct acts, so to describe each in detail would be laborious both to read and write, but suffice it to say that over the course of the movie she is the mistress to an aristocrat, performs as a cabaret dancer, is charged with murder, stows away on an illegal gambling ship, gets sold into sex slavery, and ultimately ends up turning to prostitution as a street urchin in London, where she has a climactic encounter with Jack the Ripper (a fact that is spoiled when you see “Jack the Ripper” mentioned in the opening credits).
Although that summary perhaps came off as dismissive, the plot here is quite elegant, and though the movie is fragmented, the chapters flow organically into each other. It is almost reminiscent of the Greek epics in the way that it covers so much time and geographic space, and that we see an entire life unfold and devolve during the course of the film. The characters are equally well imagined. It would be tempting to describe Lulu as a femme fatale, but that would be to do her a disservice, for she truly is a fully realized character. We can imagine this real person, walking the line between childlike playfulness and raw sexuality, luring men in and using them up without realizing what she is doing. With such a nuanced story line, the film feels surprisingly modern, and even features a relatively progressive subplot with a lesbian character.
Given my limited experience with silent film, I’ve come to expect a certain aesthetic, one not dissimilar from commedia dell’arte, with its recognizable stock characters and overly stylized performances. Pandora’s Box opened my eyes to a new kind of silent cinema, where both the plot and the characters are marked by subtlety and nuance. A great deal of credit is owed to Louise Brooks, who is absolutely superb in the lead role. She wordlessly portrays this unique character, as multifaceted as any I’ve seen. Watching her, it is immediately apparent why so many men fall for her, yet there is always a darkness lurking just below the surface.
Making this performance even more incredible was the musical accompaniment of Matti Bye. Performing primarily on grand piano, he often would use his right hand to play melody on a series of other instruments, including xylophone and melodica, while continuing to play the bass-line on the piano with his left. Additionally he had an array of effects pedals and loop machines that he used to enormous effect and with considerable restraint. The music was a perfect companion to the plot, making use of themes and motifs for particular characters and situations. The only challenge was that I occasionally found myself missing some of the action onscreen because I was so taken with the performance happening in front of the screen. The standing ovation that Bye received at the end of the performance was more than justified.
Without question, Pandora’s Box changed the way that I think about silent film (not that I thought about it much before). I now see that a skilled director and able cast are able to achieve the same nuance of plot and character that you can in any modern film. Without the aid and/or distraction of dialogue, we pay more attention to the subtleties of the facial expressions and gestures, potentially leading us to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the characters. I loved this movie, and will actively seek out more films by Pabst, and especially more by Brooks.
I was unable to find a trailer for this film, so I selected a noteworthy scene below, containing elements of the lesbian subplot mentioned above. Incidently, while looking for a trailer, I found that the entire film can be viewed online in excellent quality.