This post is part of the Film Preservation Blogathon, a wonderful project that has already yielded a great number of fascinating and passionate articles on film preservation from some of the web's best film bloggers. The Blogathon is being headed by The Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films, and the master list of contributed articles can be found on both sites. This week-long endeavor is in support of the National Film Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to a very important cause, and I highly encourage everyone to offer a donation here. As they put it:
The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.
The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.
Considering this blog is strictly film reviews, I probably shouldn't spend too much time getting anecdotal about film preservation and engaging in hero worship about someone who had no creative ties to the film in question, but screw it. Film preservation is too important a cause to rush through, and without the work of James Card and like-minded film archivists, I would not be able to write about G.W. Pabst's 1929 silent masterpiece starring Louise Brooks today.
When I mentioned “like-minded film archivists” above, it was mainly in reference to Henri Langlois, whose Cinémathèque Française was tirelessly devoted to film preservation and whose screening of Louise Brooks films in the 1950s helped spark renewed interest in her career in France. A lot has been written about Langlois, especially in terms of his relation to French New Wave filmmakers, and he certainly deserves the many gushings of praise that have been placed alongside his name, but he'll have to settle for a simple hat tip here as I shift my attention to James Card, the first curator of the George Eastman House's film collection, one of Langlois' contemporaries and a personal hero of mine.
One of the best books I've ever read is James Card's Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film. It's a completely absorbing work that functions as both a vivid memoir about Card's life spent devoted to collecting and preserving the silent films of his youth and a very passionate history and appreciation of the silent film medium. It's a great read for anyone interested in film history and archiving, filled with insightful and often bluntly hilarious opinions on silent films and insightful and often bluntly depressing facts about the dire need for their preservation. And for anyone who has lived in Rochester, it's a fascinating piece of local history.
Having spent most of life in the Rochester area, the George Eastman House's Dryden Theater, has long been my favorite movie theater. Established by Card in 1949, it still upholds his mission to offer a wide, enriching selection of films from all eras to its audience. I had an opportunity to work closely with the George Eastman House during my senior year at the University of Rochester, with some of their personnel training me in the inspection, repair, and projection of 16mm film. They are all wonderful, passionate individuals cut from the same cloth as Card and with a clear admiration for the man. During one of my training sessions, they were very excited to stumble upon some James Card letterhead, pictured above, and graciously offered me a copy. After my training, I had the chance to become even further connected to Card's life work, getting assigned to U of R's 16mm film collection, which included many films in red cases that designated the Card collection, a glorious assemblage of such widely-regarded classics as Grand Illusion and La Bete Humaine and films I had never heard of and, sadly, will probably never hear of again, such as 1910's L'aventurière (The Adventuress) and 1946's Les Gueux aus Paradis (Hoboes in Paradise).
Even though the Card films I had access to probably amounted to less than 1% of his total collection, the number of 16mm films in the department was so large and the time I had with them was so limited that there was no possible way I could work on all the films I wanted to see. While in these days of instant gratification, it can be frustrating just to look for a movie on Netflix and find that it's not available to stream, it's even more frustrating to think about how difficult it is to see so many of the films that aren't readily available to the public, and nowhere near the frustration that comes from knowing about the countless number of films believed to be lost for good. That's why we need devoted film preservationists like James Card, who not only had the drive to seek out undiscovered films, but also the love of sharing them with the public.
In the case of Louise Brooks, Card didn't just spark a public rediscovery of Brooks' films; he also got Brooks to rediscover herself. It is a story Card seemed to recount often, in Seductive Cinema, as well as this interview given in promotion of his book and in this Sight and Sound article. Though Brooks quickly made a name for herself (and her iconic eponymous haircut) on the silent screen, her years in Hollywood were brief and unfulfilled, leading to a move to Germany to work with director G.W. Pabst, a collaboration that yielded her best-known and most widely-regarded film, Pandora's Box, which I promise I will discuss in this article eventually. After this short but lucrative partnership, Brooks went back to the States, but her career never got back off the ground. By the 1950s, when her silent films were being screened to great acclaim in Europe, Brooks had turned to alcoholism in a solitary New York apartment where, Card recalls, “she spent roughly eighty percent of her time” in bed. The revivals in Europe and Card's own longtime appreciation of Brooks prompted him to contact the actress, informing her of the renewed interest in her work. She responded that this news was “the first joy I ever tasted from my movie career.” Later, she would straighten herself out and move to Rochester, where Card screened all sorts of films from his personal collection for her, and she wrote extensively about her newfound passion for film, garnering her even more respect in the critical community. It's no wonder Card told this story often. Not only did film preservation help keep Brooks' image alive onscreen, it also saved Brooks' life.
Watching Pandora's Box, it becomes abundantly clear that James Card, Henri Langlois, and everyone else who hailed Louise Brooks as an unmatched silent screen presence were onto something. Silent film acting often called for exaggerated facial expressions and abnormally slow gestures, particularly in the expressionist German films of that era. When done well, it still feels artificial, but it can result in some powerful close-ups and scenes with serious dramatic weight. When not done well, however, it can result in unintentional laughter or a quest to determine whether or not I'm watching the movie at the correct frame rate, a very real problem with many silent films. As Dr. Schön in this film, Fritz Kortner is a prime example of this method of acting, and in direct contrast to that style is Brooks, alive with sexuality as the temptress Lulu. It is a rare dramatic silent film performance that feels completely natural. I responded to every playful glance, steely-eyed glare, and devilish glint as if she was staring them straight into my eyes, and whenever she goes into one of her free-spirited dances, and the film affords her many, any question of improper frame rate is put to rest.
Separated into eight acts and spanning over two hours, the film is quite densely packed, and Brooks effortlessly commands every scene. Brooks' Lulu is introduced living in a lavish apartment owned by her lover, newspaper editor Dr. Schön. He informs her that he intends to marry another woman and their current arrangement would damage his reputation. To this, she responds, “You'll have to kill me to get rid of me.” While Dr. Schön manages to avoid Lulu during this time, she remains in close contact with his son, Alwa, who lands her a role in an elaborate musical revue. Pabst barely shows the revue as performed onstage, instead spending considerable time on the chaos and camaraderie that occurs backstage in one of the film's liveliest sequences. The backstage drama culminates in a visit from Dr. Schön and his fiancée, who goes elsewhere just long enough for Lulu to seduce Schön into a passionate kiss, which Schön's fiancée witnesses. Despite his earlier assertion that marrying a woman like Lulu “would be suicide,” Schön now chooses to marry Lulu to save his reputation. Those words ring a bit too prophetic, with Schön reacting to Lulu's seduction of Alwa in such a way that puts Lulu on trial for murder.
In a gorgeously flowing widow's veil, Lulu stands trial, eying the opposing counselor flirtatiously as he makes a damning comparison between Lulu's seduction of men to their doom and the legend of Pandora's box unleashing evil. With the help of some longstanding friends, Lulu escapes the trial and spends the rest of the film on the run from the law with Alwa. Through it all, the character of Lulu is quite static. She remains a harbinger of doom for the many men who fall under her spell throughout the film, never renouncing her ways. Her behavior only ceases when she encounters a man with an even more destructive influence on women.
As unchanging as her character's methods and motivations are, Brooks runs an impressive gamut of emotions. Framed by her sleek black shell of a haircut, Brooks' every look and facial expression is accented by the film's gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting, often capturing a perfect glisten in her eyes. The impressive lighting of Pandora's Box is characteristic of the extremely high level of craft that went into German films of the era, and with its similarly stunning sets and camerawork, Pabst's film stands alongside the silent masterpieces of such contemporaries as Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau as a high point in the medium. As strong as those technical elements are, though, the film belongs to Brooks, and dear lord, does she own it well.
Rating: ***** (out of five)