Pandora’s Box (1929, 2006)

by | Dec 18, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Pandora’s Box (1929, 2006)

Starring Louis Brooks
Directed by G. W. Pabst
Studio: Nero & Janus Films/Criterion Collection 358 (2 discs)
Video: 1.33:1 B&W, Extras: B&W & color
Audio: DD 5.1, 2.0
Inter-titles are in German with English subtitles
Extras: Four different musical score soundtracks in surround sound, Continuous commentary by film scholars Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Ann Doane, “Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu” 1998 documentary for Turner Classics (narrated by Shirley MacLaine, 60:00), “Lulu in Berlin” 1984 filmed interview with Brooks conducted by filmmaker Richard Leacock and Susan Steinberg Woll (48:00), New video interviews with Richard Leacock and Michael Pabst (the director’s son), Stills gallery, Bound 98-page booklet with Kenneth Tynan essay “The Girl in the Black Helmet,” a chapter from Brooks’ memoir, and a new essay by film critic J. Hoberman
Length: 133 minutes
Rating: *****

Fans and collectors of silent films as well as those fascinated by the 1920s flapper-girl era must be thinking Christmas came early this year.  This is one of the best digitally-remastered DVD sets of a classic B&W  film to date; more expensive than the typical DVD but well worth it for the amazing amount of truly useful extras provided and the great care in every aspect of the presentation from The Criterion Collection.

The design and packaging of the two DVDs is beautifully done, and the lavishly-illustrated 90-page book is definitely a keeper for any film fan. The English intertitles are new improved translations made just for this release. The film quality is quite good and the camera is in love with Brooks’ expressive face. The wonderful documentary on Brooks was produced by Hugh Hefner in l998 and is almost as good as Pandora’s Box. If the whole amazing Brooks story is new to you, I would suggest viewing that first on the second DVD, then viewing the film, then looking at all the other terrific extras – including the lengthy interview with the elderly Brooks herself.  Now you’ll also have the perplexing decision to make over which of the four (yes, Four!) different complete musical scores in surround to run with the images of the silent film.  You might want to try a different one each time you re-view the film. I tried the cabaret ensemble first, and the modern symphonic score the second time. The first option is a score cobbled together from the typical generic music that was available for stage orchestras to play for silents in major theatrical showings, and the last is an improvised piano accompaniment to the film. 

Alright, now to Brooks, Pabst and the Weimar Republic lifestyle in Berlin during the 1920s – which was sort of big-city life in the U.S. in the 20s, but on uppers. The actress, who hailed from a small town in Kansas, after a brief Hollywood career in which no director realized how to use her talents, was invited to Berlin by director G. W. Pabst (who later made the first film of Kurt Weill’s Three-Penny Opera, with Lotte Lenya).  Pabst knew exactly what he wanted for his film version of material from two controversial 1890s plays by Wedekind about a naive/amoral woman who brings tragedy to everyone around her, opening the “Pandora’s Box” of evil. Brooks plays the dancer/entertainer/mistress in wild Berlin of 1928, which role wasn’t that different from the actual life Brooks was leading in her time away from the cameras. (She never bothered to learn German; this was a silent film after all. She later appeared in a second Pabst silent film, Diary of a Lost Girl.  After that she starred in a French film but didn’t learn French either.)  The Wedekind plays also were the source for Alban Berg’s later opera Lulu.

Pabst was a genius at bringing out exactly the qualities of Louise Brooks which no one else had really seen. She is a phenomenon onscreen, communicating a wider variety of emotions and feelings than any other actress of the silent screen had done.  With her unique hairstyle (the “black helmet”), piercing eyes and great beauty, she became probably the greatest screen vixen of all time – silent or sound. And after getting into the flow of Pandora’s Box with one of the four soundtrack choices you will soon forget this is a silent film.  Some film historians feel that Pandora’s Box is the culmination of the entire German expressionist silent film movement.

In a cynical way, my comment about Christmas coming early for collectors could come back to a suspicion that this downbeat tale is really a holiday film: At this late date it wouldn’t be a spoiler to reveal that the final scene – in which Lulu is reduced to prostitution in the streets of London and killed by Jack the Ripper – takes place at Christmastime with a Salvation Army Band and all the trimmings.

— John Sunier

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