Sunday, July 15, 2012

Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der Pandora)

PANDORA’S BOX (Die Büchse der Pandora)            A                    
Germany  (133 mi)  1928  d:  G. W. Pabst

You'll have to kill me to get rid of me.               —Lulu (Louise Brooks)

A timeless Silent film that represents the hedonistic decadence of amorality and debauchery in the Weimar Republic (1918 – 1933) of 1920’s Berlin, so prevalent in films like Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (1927), von Sternberg’s THE BLUE ANGEL (1930), or even Pabst’s own THE THREEPENNY OPERA (1931), an extraordinary period of artistic freedom and sexual experimentation that gave rise not only to the birth of German Expressionism, the Bauhaus modern art movement, and a new international style of architecture, but also a notoriously vibrant nightlife of underground theaters, cinema, café’s and bars that stretched the boundaries of sexuality.  Born out of Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I, it was a period of war reparations and an imposed economic devaluation that led to chaos, hyperinflation, economic collapse, and political upheaval.  Out of this moral decline, however, came a burgeoning sex industry and internationally renowned cabaret performances, featuring a financially independent “new woman” in Weimar German society.  Discarded American actress Louise Brooks set the world on fire in this German film with her shortly cropped, bobbed hairstyle, also a decidedly relaxed wardrobe of form fitting *barely there* clothing that struck a note of individuality and emancipation, representative of *new age* women that were both celebrated and cursed by an older generation who feared their individualism and selfishness, coming from a more oppressive tradition.  As this film suggests, it was the mere audacity to dare to be different and everything associated with the idea of a *new woman* that was eventually blamed for the frenzied immorality that led to the downfall of Weimar culture and society, giving rise to the Third Reich where the Nazi’s quickly shut down the clubs and banned what was considered culturally decadent, also anything reflecting an outside potentially Jewish influence, labeling it degenerate art.

A composite of two well-known German plays by Frank Wedekind, known as the “Lulu” plays, Erdgeist (Earth Spirit, 1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904), his work criticizes bourgeois sexual attitudes through the exploration of a sexually liberated character, Lulu (Brooks), a victim of the time in which she lived, seen as a sexual temptress whose carefree innocence and naiveté is part of her allure, as her frank eroticism inspires lust and violence in others, where she ends up ruining the lives of everyone around her.  Lulu has been dancing in the bars and nightclubs of Berlin since she was a child, leading a sexually active life, often supported by the patronage of influential or wealthy men, and while Brooks is indeed sexually enticing throughout, there is no explicit sex or nudity, as instead everything is suggested largely from the close ups on her naturally expressive face, as she latches onto the arm of every available man she sees, seemingly oblivious to the effect this would have on anyone else, but simply loves being adored, where men become obsessed with a kind of fatal attraction towards her and lavish her with expensive gifts, where she is constantly the center of attention.  For better or for worse, this is simply the life she’s used to, where her beauty, natural openness and expressed vulnerability inspires a group of hangers-on, which includes a widowed newspaper publisher Dr. Ludwig Schön (Fritz Kortner), his son Alwa (Francis Lederer), an old friend, perhaps her father, old enough to be her grandfather, but more likely her pimp, a mysterious controlling force that continually takes advantage of her, Schigolch (Carl Goetz), and even an interested lesbian (Alice Roberts), the Countess Anna Geschwitz, a group that seems to follow her around wherever she goes, an odd sort of collective of societal misfits that is strange in itself.  Pabst was criticized in the press at the time for casting a foreigner in a role that was considered so definitively German, so it’s ironic the film is largely remembered for Brooks’s legendary performance, where she provides such a powerful sexual presence.  American critics had problems as well, claiming her unwholesome lifestyle was not suitable for the screen, cutting out large portions of the American release. Of interest, the plays are also inspiration for a modernist opera called Lulu, Lulu (opera), written by Alban Berg in 1937, which was seen here in Chicago during the 2008-09 season, Opera Today : Berg's Lulu at Lyric Opera of Chicago, one of the definitively bleak works in the opera repertoire.  The work was, appropriately, banned by the Nazi’s, as were the original plays, where Lulu’s sexual freedom, femininity, and daring experimentation were deemed problematic. 

Suggesting we all have a dark side, the film is presented as the rise and fall of a free spirit, mired in an aura of extreme pessimism, where people get what they want sexually out of Lulu, but she never asks for anything.  Using distinctly expressionistic theatrical settings, the film opens in Lulu’s nicely furnished bourgeois apartment paid for by Dr. Schön, as she’s been his longtime mistress, but she doesn’t take it well when Schön announces his plans to marry a wealthy socialite, the daughter of the Minister of the Interior.  Not going away easily, Lulu tells him “You'll have to kill me to get rid of me.”  Alwa, who also has designs on her, decides to star Lulu in one of his theatrical productions, but Lulu refuses to perform in front of Schön’s new fiancée, pulling a giant sized tantrum of epic proportions in front of all the players in full costume where she ends up seducing him just as the fiancée walks in on them, forcing the poor bastard to marry her instead, even after telling his son that “one does not marry” a woman like her.  Despite cavorting with everyone at the wedding except the groom, causing a minor scandal dancing with the Countess, Schön has had enough and in a jealous rage, attempts to convince Lulu to kill herself right then and there, as there’s no other solution.  In the ensuing struggle, he’s killed when the gun goes off.  Despite Alwa testifying on her behalf at the trial that it was an accident, she is found guilty, where the prosecutor links her to the fatalistic evil of Pandora.  In the chaotic mayhem after the verdict, she escapes with Alwa and Schigolch first to Cairo, where she is bought, sold, and nearly deceived into sexual slavery, eventually taking refuge in London, having lost all their money.  On Christmas Eve, penniless and starving, Lulu decides to streetwalk the foggy streets of London, discovering none other than Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl), who initially puts his knife away due to her inherent kindness, but finding another nearby is just too much temptation and fate, quickly putting an end to it all, though it’s more a mercy killing, as for all practical purposes she’s already dead, while the hangers-on fade into oblivion as a Salvation Army parade marches by.  Pandora figures prominently into Greek mythology, where Zeus, unhappy with Prometheus for stealing fire from the heavens and giving it to humans on earth, significantly improving the quality of life for humans, presents Pandora, along with a beautiful container, to Prometheus’s brother, instructing her not to open the box under any circumstances.  Of course, impelled by curiosity, she opens the box and evil is spread all over the world before she could close the container.  Everything escapes from the box except one thing lying at the bottom which remains, the spirit of hope.  The film is noted for its interesting blend of German Expressionism and Victorian atmosphere, where Pabst has a meticulous eye for background detail, objects, facial expressions, and brief glimpses of light, but with such a modernistic understanding of blending image and attitude, it’s the spontaneous and seemingly effortless performance of Louise Brooks that continues to captivate audiences.

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