Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pandora's Box (1929)

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)


  1. John - this appreciation of Pandora's Box is exquisite. I do think that Brooks' acting style was much more the norm at this stage of silent films. What gets me is the force-of-nature quality with which she infuses Lulu, as though she doesn't really have any motivation per se for her behavior - she just is. What a privilege to have worked at Eastman House. I still need to make my way there.

    Thanks for this wonderful contribution to the blogathon.

  2. I agree with Marilyn, exquisite. Even small films, like "The Show Off", display Ms. Brooks naturalistic self that the camera loved - getting over a fence in that film, she looked like she danced over, rather than just stepped, and it looked right. I confess to becoming obsessed a little with her in the early '70s - a collection of random clips was shown in a high school class, and one short, striking sequence had her laughing on a staircase (from "The Show Off' I found out much later) - but I had to find out who just she was, a hard thing to do back then. It was a fun treasure hunt. "The Show Off" has other treats as well - it has some glorious outdoor shots of Philadelphia back then, so alive and interesting.

    After seeing all those Brooks films, I must say, in the spirit of another blog posting elsewhere for this fine endeavor, that Louis Brooks had more erect nipple shots than any actress on screen for many years, a bit of a plus for a growing boy like me.

    Curiously, Ms Brooks seemed to have been ambivalent toward Card in the end, for a number of reasons, I understand, and once bemoaned towards the end of her life his passion for collecting foreign films for preservation and ignoring home-grown ones crying out for a home.

    Ms Brooks had run up more than a few times against the sad and stark fact that even preservationists will make what they see as "triage" judgments on what deserves to be preserved, but are often just personal likes and dislikes put forth as undeniable facts.

    A pioneering film preservationist and curator, mentioned in another blog also for this occasion, BTW, once told Ms Brooks in 1943 (!!!) that "Pandora's Box" had "no lasting value", and consequently wasn't interested in a copy for that particular collection. Ms Brooks resented that elitist view, and near the end in 1982, she said, "Every picture is worth something to somebody, and there's always a reason for saving it...These people aren't necessarily instructive. They should grab everything they can get hold of, for sooner or later it's going to be precious."

  3. Thank you for the interesting post. I had not heard or read James Card's name for a long time.

  4. Thank you all for your wonderful comments!

    You hit the nail on the head about Brooks as a force of nature. There was really no attempt to explain her actions, and that made the performance all the more fascinating.
    As far as silent acting goes, I'll yield to your assessment on that front. I realized when I was writing it that it might be too much of a generalization, but based on other films I've seen from that time and even in the film itself (Dr. Schon in particular), the artificial acting style still seemed quite prominent. What I should have realized is that most of the silent dramas I've seen from that era were German. Now I'm thinking her performance stands out more as a disparity between her Hollywood acting style and a German acting style that was in line with their expressionistic films, but next to Brooks, feels extremely out of place. And of course, thank you so much for all the work you've put into this blogathon.

    Based on what you said, I am definitely gonna need to further my newfound Louise Brooks love and watch The Show Off sometime soon. I certainly agree with what Brooks said about how every films deserves preservation. Even if you can't personally defend a film as great art, others may be able to, and barring that it is still a vital document of a certain place and time. Still, the whole reason behind this blogathon is to raise money for preservation and that comes with the sad fact that we may never have the resources needed to preserve every possible film.

  5. This was a great post. Like the others, I had almost forgotten about Card. It's great to see him, and Eastman House, get a renewed appreciation.

  6. I enjoyed reading your post a great deal. Thank you. I can only wonder if some of those unexamined 16mm films belonging to Card might be one of Louise Brooks' lost films? One can always hope.

    thomas gladysz
    Director, Louise Brooks Society

  7. It made me so happy to read this. Jim was a truly magnificent person, and we were both so fortunate to have known him. And this is one of the best readings of PANDORA I've ever read. And you are quite right about the people at Eastman House. It feels like family there. One thing Jim feared was that he would be forgotten, and that cannot happen. Writing _Seductive Cinema_ was a true labor of love, and a manifesto. Thanks for a great post!

  8. Again, thank you all so much for your comments! It's so great to see everyone so jazzed up about film preservation.

    Your site is a wonderful tribute to the great actress. I actually went through it quite a bit while doing research for this article. I certainly had dreams of discovering a lost film while browsing the collection, but I was only dealing with a small subsection of his catalog. Of course, I didn't look in every film can, but to my knowledge, all the films were labeled and accounted for. Here's hoping those films are safe somewhere, though, and if so, that they wind up in the right hands.

    Thank you for your comment and the great appreciation of Card on your blog. I actually only know Card through his writing, so I'm quite jealous of the fact that you knew him in person. It sounds like everything I admired about him in his writing came through in real life. Between the people I met at the George Eastman House and everyone who contributed to this blogathon, it doesn't look like Card will be forgotten any time soon.

  9. Jon,
    A marvelous piece! Card was a legend, and I was also privileged to know him, mainly after he left GEH to begin his own revival theater in East Rochester. Please take a look at my own very modest web page/tribute that includes some Card memorabilia.
    All best,
    Rick Squires