Review: Pandora’s Box

How to close it becomes a modern world’s ultimate ethical, self-reflective challenge.

Pandora’s Box

Louise Brooks’s famous bobbed hairstyle precipitated her eternal inimitability, its razor-sharp aesthetic a marker of her essence. G.W. Pabst understood this, which is why when Brooks’s doomed flapper from Pandora’s Box flees a courtroom after a murder conviction, she cuts her hair to become almost unidentifiable—to be like other women, except perhaps for the curly-blond gal pal who longs for her affections. (One sign of the film’s coolness is its refusal to waltz Alice Roberts into the celluloid closet.) It’s an act of desperate self-preservation in a film wickedly chockablock with exciting displays of amorous exaltation and domination. This is a stirring vision of the world gripped by a sinister moral vice—a nosedive into a carnal abyss of despair lined with visionary chiaroscuro sights and thorny mythological reference. With a voracious Lulu at the gilded controls, a vibrantly in-the-moment Pandora’s Box evokes a thoroughly-modern world trying to completely exorcise the vestiges of its serial sexual and historical perversities like a sweaty dry heave. The film’s triumph is Lulu’s seduction of Dr. Peter Schön (Fritz Lederer) prior to a musical revue, a sick spectacle that begins with a diva tantrum and spirals into a chilling show of mind control, with Lulu laughing at Schön’s wife as she pecks the man on the lips—never has the face of evil looked so beautiful. The rest, from the man’s attractive son, Alwa Schön (Fritz Kortner), to the sniveling Rodrigo Quast (Krafft Raschig) will fall like dominos, but who is doing the toppling here? Lulu, like Else Heller’s Mutter from Joe May’s Asphalt the same year, is not totally rotten (her devastating dying gasp—a stirring act of contrition—suggests as much), though she does metaphorically embody the evils of the world. Pabst twist, though, is that Pandora’s box is already open and certainly not of her own accord. How to close it becomes a modern world’s ultimate ethical, self-reflective challenge.

Score: 
 Cast: Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Franz Lederer, Carl Götz, Alice Roberts, Daisy D'ora, Krafft Raschig, Michael Von Newlinsky, Siegfried Arno, Gustav Diessl  Director: G.W. Pabst  Screenwriter: Ladislaus Vajda  Distributor: Kino International  Running Time: 110 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1929  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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