Contrary to Popular Opinion: Thoughts on “Pandora’s Box”

This post was written especially for the Contrary to Popular Opinion blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid with the help of Movies Silently. This ‘thon is all about unpopular opinions–maybe one blogger thinks a reviled film is a secret classic, or maybe another feels that a critically-acclaimed masterpiece is overrated. Whatever the case, we’re sharing our opinions this weekend and I thank you for stopping by to check out mine!

The young woman sits quietly in court, wearing a fetching black mourning dress and veil, as her lawyer provides a rousing defense of her innocence in the sudden death of her husband. She thanks him with an attractive smile as he–rather familiarly–kisses her hand. The prosecutor rises, a serious man of the law, and begins to deliver his damning speech: “Your honors. Members of the jury. The Greek gods created a woman: Pandora. She was beautiful, charming, versed in the art of flattery…but the gods also gave her a box containing the evils of the world…” From across the room he catches the eye of the woman he’s condemning. She smiles slowly, beguilingly. Serious Man of the Law stops, too charmed for a moment to go on.

This scene, which would be dismissed as pure hokum in almost any other context, is from none other than Pandora’s Box (1929), the much-lauded drama by G.W. Pabst starring legendary Louise Brooks. Centering around the travails of a young woman who charms every man she meets and whose free nature (or selfishness?) ultimately leads to her downfall, this film receives heaps of praise and adulation in film-loving circles. In fact, I’ve come across more than one person who feels it’s nothing less than the greatest silent ever made.

I’ve noticed that discussions of Pandora’s Box invariably center on two things: the great performance of Louise Brooks and how well the film was made. Those points come up time and time again. Certainly it’s an impressive-looking film, with sophisticated setups and exquisite lighting. It’s easy to be drawn into Pandora’s Box just for this reason. And since the style shares similarities with the very-familiar film noir genre it can also attract film lovers who don’t otherwise watch a lot of silents. (The great condition the film survives in is also a plus.)

And it’s not hard to see why Brooks’s performance is considered such a milestone. She had a quality that could almost be described as introspective, except that it’s never that self-conscious. Critics will note the unusual choices in her acting that only she could pull off–of the scene where her husband is accidentally shot, Roger Ebert stated: “She seems to be standing outside her own life, watching it happen.” And, of course, her beauty and edgy hairstyle look was enough to make her an icon in the first place.

But take away Brooks from Pandora’s Box, and what are we left with?

A dark, slow, long (oh, so very long) film full of unlikable characters with a bleak moral outlook. Go even further and take away the cinematography, and you have a film that even a hardcore cinema fan would have a hard time sitting through.

Let’s put Brooks aside for a moment–how are we supposed to feel about the central character, Lulu herself? Are we supposed to get a sense of justice that this lusted-after woman is getting a comeuppance à la Scarlett O’Hara? Are we supposed to feel for her? Is she loving, or is she basically a spoiled child?

After all, Lulu is charming but she freely takes advantage of men, and often–manipulating them and blithely claiming them for herself. Lulu is frequently described as having an “innocent” or unwitting quality. I would argue that this is due to Brooks’s charisma, probably not to the worldly-wise Lulu herself. Pabst chose her as the lead for a good reason (instead of someone who comes across as more “streetwise” like Marlene Dietrich).

But we might forget that Brooks doesn’t shy away from the darkest side of her character, too. Consider the look on her face when she and her engaged “patron” are caught in an embrace by the patron’s fiancee. There isn’t even a particle of shame–only a chilling, smug triumph.

Lulu is, to be honest, not the kind of gal most women could be around for very long. I’m not talking about cattiness over looks, now–but something deeper than that. Notice how Lulu always interacts with men, all of whom are invariably attracted to her. The only woman she seems to be friends with is a lesbian who is also attracted to her (and is possibly more than a friend). She seems to have no interest in female friendships, only in what she receives from admiring lovers. There’s a wall between her and other women.

You might be saying at this point: “Ah, but all this talk about how you’re supposed to feel about Lulu is silly. Pabst wants us to regard these characters for who they are, not necessarily to judge them or learn from them one way or another. Your silly opinions are wrought with silliness.” I can’t really disagree with how Pabst handles his characters, he did after all have a pretty distinct style. But in my opinion it still begs the question: would Pandora’s Box still be a great film if a lesser actress was the star? Would we be watching it so much today?

The end of the film (I am discussing spoilers by the way) has Lulu and her companions living in Dickensian conditions in a cold London garret. She decides to streetwalk to get much-needed cash–one companion happily encourages her–and she unknowingly picks up a serial killer. He’s honest with her, saying he has no money. She decides to invite him to her room anyway: “I like you,” she says. This would add a vaguely merciful side to her character if it weren’t so oddly naive. But Pabst’s Lulu could hardly get away with a happy ending after all her manipulations–and into the arms of a serial killer she goes. (End spoilers.)

And again–what are we supposed to take away from the story of Lulu? Are we sad that this woman’s free lifestyle is eventually cut short by a man, thus making her a tragic victim? After all, “victim” is a mighty difficult status to swallow–this is a woman involved with a father and son simultaneously who flirts with a prosecutor while being tried for murder, after all. Or are we supposed to feel that she’s “gotten what’s coming to her,” even when we recall how she loved “living in the moment”? Somewhere, Pabst is probably filled with glee at all these questions.

When all is said and done, I would say Pandora’s Box is a great film, an impressively skillful film, but one that’s very much in debt to the presence of Louise Brooks. It will probably always be included on lists of the finest films ever made. It will probably always enjoy praise.

But it does seem to me that the real cult of the long and gritty Pandora’s Box is actually the cult of Louise Brooks.

24 thoughts on “Contrary to Popular Opinion: Thoughts on “Pandora’s Box”

  1. Pingback: The “Contrary to Popular Opinion” Blogathon Is Here! | Sister Celluloid

  2. I’ve not seen “Pandora’s Box”, but Louise’s performance and her wardrobe are so often discussed I almost feel like I have seen it. This is why I enjoyed your review so much. It was a different look at a “sacred cow”, and I found it refreshing. Thanks for including this in the blogathon!

    • Thanks–it was a tough one to pick apart, considering the production values and such. But, as your comment even shows, it certainly seems to be Brooks who’s the whole show, not really the show itself.

  3. I haven’t seen this since it was screened in one of my film studies classes. All I really remember about it is Louise Brooks’ incredible screen presence. I don’t recall being as impressed by the film as some of the other students, so you’re not alone in your feelings about it.

  4. I can’t seem to get this film; it’s a “very long wait” listing on Netflix. Maybe I shouldn’t be disappointed:) I’m glad you’ve lowered my expectations a bit, as maybe then I can just appreciate Brooks when I see it instead of expecting something amazing.–Leah

    • You never know, you might have a different take on it than me! But just to be on the safe side, maybe prepare yourself for the possibility of…err…falling asleep in the middle of it like I did. *hangs head in shame* (Yes, I did watch it more than once!)

  5. I agree. I DVRd it off TCM. Being a casual viewer while multitasking I often don’t pay enough attention to silent dramas. Just like Chaplin, Louise kept my attention focused on the movie. She certainly energized the film. In this sense her presence enraptures just as Lulu enraptures those around her.

  6. I must be the only person who is feels Louise Brooks is so over rated, The films ok by no means my favourite Silent, It’s Louise Brooks who I am moaning about, she didn’t really like acting in movies and from reading about her she always strikes me as being extremely self centred lazy and selfish. She only made a few films compared to a lot of harder working Actresses, but her bangs seem to have made her the face of Silent Movies, which I feel she doesn’t deserve.
    Rant over

    • I’ve come across a few others who have felt as you do, Paul–you aren’t alone! Myself, I just can’t deny the charisma she has with the camera, even if I’m not wild about the films she’s in. I can understand how you feel about Brooks as a person, too. Ultimately it’s the the work of actors and directors that’s the most important, and the most worthy of discussion…however, it’s simply human to find it difficult to like certain individuals, or to find aspects of their private lives disappointing.

  7. Glad you wrote about this as I’ve also found this film problematic (I thought maybe I wasn’t cultured enough for silents 😉 ) As you say, there’s little of merit beyond Brooks – who for me is almost Marilyn Monroe-ish in this – and the costumes. Lacking in sense of ‘sin’, Lulu is refreshing on the surface but ultimately tragic and that shades her whole character – being bad never pays off. I wonder what it would have been like to watch this at the date of release? It’s clear how scandalous it must’ve been!

    • It seems to have been fairly well-received by critics, interestingly enough! You have to wonder if the ending saved it from being picked apart too harshly (and there’s a heck of a lot to pick apart–Lulu cuddling with her former pimp, for instance…yikes). Then again, it apparently didn’t make too big of a splash at the time, probably because sound was coming in very quickly and silents were being given less and less attention (as I looked up).

  8. I don’t think that your review is contrary to popular opinion. I watched Pandora’s Box only a few weeks ago. I had heard that it was some sort of masterpiece and I looked forward to it. By the end, which I agree was a long time coming, I was only impressed by Brooks and as you said, the production. I thought that many of the other characters were over-played and out of synch with Brooks’s more natural performance. I agree that it was only a good movie elevated to iconic staus by Louise Brooks’s almost constant presence on the screen.

  9. This post really twisted my little brain!
    I saw this film in a mediu-sized, projection-format screen. It had an audience. Some people groaned and complained when each “act” ended and another one started. They wanted the thing to be over. Some people slept, some went away in the middle. But I loved it.
    I have to agree that there is not really a moral in this film. It is Brooks who owns the film, who makes everything stunning and who makes us root for th character. Try to envision Mae West as Lulu: not the same, right?
    It was a wonderful debate!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

    • Ah yes, if I had been in that screening, I might’ve been one of those who fell asleep. But just for a little while. 😀 I’m glad you liked it, though! Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Ān interesting take. I like the Die Büchse der Pandora more than you do, but I have to agree that Louise carries the film. It’s defintiely fair to say that she accounts for a large part of the film’s enduring reputation – her charisma is outstanding, luminous.
    However, I’ve actually always really liked the ambivalent treatment of Lulu as a character – painted by the narrative neither as outright villain nor object of sympathy. There is a sense of detachment that I find very intriguing, although I can see how it wouldn’t work for all viewers.

    • Ah yes, there are times when an ambivalent treatment of a character is interesting and thought-provoking to me…and there are other times when ambivalence just puts a wall between me and the character. For me, Pandora’s Box is the latter kind. But I’m glad you’re able to appreciate it, though!

  11. I downloaded Pandora’s Box several months ago after reading so much about it. It’s not a bad film, but I didn’t like it enough to add it to my movie collection. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “Metropolis,” and early talkies like “M” and “The Blue Angel” (among others) are much better German films than PB, which in my opinion is not a masterpiece like so many adoring fans of Louise Brooks believe it to be. The hair-style, the iconic movie poster for the film, and the appeal of Ms. Brooks are all good…but the film didn’t fulfill my hyped up expectations. It should be noted that there were alternate endings to this movie, something not unusual for its time. There was a kinder and gentler version for French audiences with no Jack the Ripper character, she doesn’t get murdered, and the film ends with Lulu joining The Salvation Army. I think I would have preferred this to the Mr. Goodbar type ending. Despite my disappointments, I’m still intrigued by Louise Brooks and wish she had made more movies to judge her by. I’ll be looking for “Beggars of Life” and other films I can find from her (regrettably) short career.

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