Pandora’s Box (1929)
Reviewed on 2006 October 18
It’s rare to find an old silent movie that is crisp and has legible subtitles, and that’s one of the reasons I was pulled into watching IFC’s broadcast of Pandora’s Box. The crisp black-and-white and wonderful restoration made the movie beautiful and the subtitles were very distinct, in both German and the English translations. A lot of the classics have that somewhat creepy feel. This still shines like a flawless antique.
The other reason was the acting. Most silent movies are overly dramatic by modern standards, with facial expressions that suggest a mouthful of overripe jalapenos more than acting. Pandora’s Box was remarkably modern, despite the misogynist overtones. Louise Brooks plays Lulu, who I can best describe as a hybrid between Damien and Eve. No matter where she winds up or where her amorality takes her, she shakes out the world’s coolest hair and flashes her amazing smile, and men lose all reason around her. She professes to be a dancer and finds "sponsors" very easily. Lulu smiles her way through the potential destruction of several men and her own life, and seems to be as unhindered by depression as she is morals. At one point towards the end of the movie when things are especially bleak, she still lines her huge eyes, combs that bob, and goes looking for a solution to her financial problems. Never let it be said she’s not resilient.
The unique thing about this silent movie is that there aren’t really any unintentional funny parts, except for a moment of emoting towards the end. The deliberately silly parts during one sequence when Lulu tries her hand at acting during a gaudy stage show (financed by her most spectacular kill, a rich doctor) are still playful and enjoyable. G.W. Pabst got the best from all his actors in this allegory, and while it is sexist, the men really don’t fare much better than the women. The women are either angels or poisonous but the men are plain stupid. The dumbest of the lot is the wealthy doctor — he’s engaged to a beautiful blonde woman but since he’s wealthy Lulu goes after him like a scud missile, and the idiot falls for it. His jilted fiancee is the only person to look at Lulu with clear eyes, and in one scene when Lulu’s putting on a costume for the show, the blonde gazes at her with cool, reasonable hate. She recognizes Lulu as a destroyer and painful as it was she just walked away from the trainwreck, making her one of the first smart blondes in cinema.
You know no good can come from all of this, but with Pabst’s skilled hand, instead of just being annoyed by the sexism or depressed by it all, you still wonder what this woman put in her water. We’ve all known women like Lulu, and though we may resent and fear her, most of us secretly want a little of what she has (but combined with the horse sense of that blonde).
I’m glad IFC and other stations still show classics like this, and even happier Criterion is putting goodies like this on DVD.
Pandora’s Box gets four morsels and a shot of Godiva Chocolate Liquer.