Saturday, October 2, 2010

What's in the Box?

Film: Die Buchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

According to Greek myth, the gods created a woman named Pandora who had all the gifts the gods could give a woman. The one fault she had was burning curiosity. The gods also gave Pandora a box and instructions to never open the box because something terrible would happen should the box be opened. Since she could not control her curiosity, Pandora eventually did open the box, and in so doing, released all evils upon the world.

Die Buchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) is a very loose interpretation of this myth. Here, the box is not a literal box, but the woman herself. The woman here is Lulu (Louise Brooks). She is a kept woman, who lives at the behest of Dr. Schon (Fritz Kortner), who finds Lulu irresistible, knowing that his relationship with her is destroying his own reputation.

To save himself, Schon agrees to marry another woman, hoping to separate himself from Lulu as best he can. In reaction, Lulu returns to a life on the stage, specifically in the production of Schon’s son, Alwa (Franz Lederer). However, when Schon shows up backstage with his fiancée, Lulu refuses to perform, instead seducing the doctor anew, forcing him to marry her.

But Lulu is, for lack of a better way to put it, the epitome of desire—she is the contents of Pandora’s box rather than Pandora herself. In many ways, Lulu is an innocent unaware of her power. At other times, she is the ultimate manipulator, demanding male attention and unable to be happy if another woman is getting any attention at all. This is best demonstrated in the marriage scene, where her old mentor Schigolch (Carl Goetz) speaks with her and sparks a jealous rage in Schon. Knowing that he will forever be subjected to this mindless jealousy, Schon hands Lulu a gun, demanding that she kill herself. Instead, she shoots him. It is unclear whether or not this is accidental.

Regardless, Lulu is placed on trial, where she receives a sentence of five years for manslaughter. Before the sentence can be carried out, she is whisked out of the courtroom and she returns to the home of Dr. Schon, seemingly unaffected by the trial and results of the same. Alwa confronts her, but rather than turning his father’s killer in to the police, she seduces him as she did his father, and they plan to run off together.

This is complicated by the fact that, due to the publicity of the trial, Lulu is easily recognizable. She is spotted on the train, specifically by Marquis Casti-Piani (Michael von Newlinsky), who threatens to turn her in. Another theatrical acquaintance named Rodrigo Quast (Krafft-Raschig) demands that she fund his next show or he will also turn her in. Essentially, the lust and fascination Lulu has caused throughout the film has been supplanted by greed. Lulu is no longer a figure of desire, but a commodity to be traded.

Eventually, Lulu, Alwa, and Schigolch escape to London where Lulu encounters the last man she will ever meet: Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl). This proves to be a fatal meeting for Lulu because in London, the only way for her to earn a living is to sell herself on the street. She has returned to being a figure of lust, but of a much pettier, uglier lust. Additionally, as a woman selling her body as a prostitute, Lulu is also a figure of commodity just as she was in earlier scenes. Her role as prostitute essentially is the culmination of everything she has been in the film to this point. Essentially, the only way to close Pandora’s box is to destroy it.

This is a difficult film, and deals with sexuality in a very open, surprising way. This is evident not only in the very open sexuality of Lulu’s persona—especially in the end—but also in the Oedipal conflict between Dr. Schon and Alwa that dominates the first half of the film. Perhaps the most shocking is the character of Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), who is Lulu’s friend. Dressing almost exclusively in men’s clothing, the Countess is depicted very much as a lesbian, a fact confirmed by her interest in Lulu.

Ultimately, this is a tough film to watch. Louise Brooks is a true wonder, though. She is, for a film made in 1929, surprisingly modern in appearance and in action. Lulu is unabashed in her own sexuality, and is unencumbered by the mores of the time. This is probably the reason the film failed to gain much entrance in the United States.

Did I like it? I’m not sure. I am glad I’ve seen it though, even if I never watch it again.

Why to watch Die Buchse der Pandora: Perhaps the ultimate film of Weimar-era German expressionism.
Why not to watch: It’s hard to follow and understand.


  1. A local Cinemark has a picture of Louise Brooks among the many iconic faces that grace their lobby and corridor. Because of "The Book" and this movie, I now am among probably just a handful in town that really know who she is.

    Prior to introduction to earlier films by "the Book" I would have attributed the racy nature of the film to it's European production but have since learned that there was quite a bit of promiscuity in much of Hollywood's "Pre-Code" era.

    Another thing that "The Book" has done for me is introduce actor's I've known for years, in way's I never really knew them. Prior to 4 years ago, my only visions of Barbara Stanwick, Fred MacMurray and Robert Young were through their TV roles as upstanding uber-decent family heads. Their earlier roles were often seedy, tough as nails, sensually charged characters not always on the right side of a situation that their television personas leave me ill-prepared for.

  2. I get what you mean about Fred MacMurray especially. He's such a bastard in both Double Indemnity and The Apartment that I find it difficult to reconcile him with the portrayal of his I'm the most familiar with--Chip and Ernie's dad on My Three Sons.

    I guess if nothing else, it shows the dangers of typecasting.