Based on two plays by the acclaimed German dramatist Frank Wedekind, Die Büchse der Pandora, or Pandora’s Box, tells the story of Lulu, a lovely, amoral, and somewhat petulant showgirl whose behavior leads to tragic consequences. Louise Brooks plays Lulu, the singular femme fatale. As Brooks biographer Barry Paris put it, her “sinless sexuality hypnotizes and destroys the weak, lustful men around her.” And not just men. . . Lulu’s sexual magnetism had few bounds, and this once controversial film features what may be the screen’s first lesbian character.
When the film premiered in Berlin in 1929, critics and the movie-going public were largely dismissive of the much anticipated work. The very idea of the film had been rejected by some who claimed “Lulu is inconceivable without the words that Wedekind made her speak.” To deflect such criticism, director G.W. Pabst conducted a well-publicized search for an actress who was just the right type: according to one film journal of the time, the search was a topic of considerable interest, and “Everywhere one went one heard ‘What about Lulu?’ and ‘Is Lulu found yet?’” Once the part was cast, however, Germans objected to the little known Brooks in the role, doubting an American actress could play what was thought to be an essentially German character.
As a psychological study, some also found Pandora’s Box a disappointment, regretting Pabst’s seeming retreat from the social and political engagement of his earlier works. Critics and censors were likewise taken aback by what was then considered a rather frank portrayal of sexuality. Even from afar, the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), writing in the English film journal Close Up, noted the controversy when she stated the film had “passed by the German censors after a stormy discussion of several hours duration.”
Pabst’s choice of Brooks was said to be a mistake, and her acting came under fire. Many German critics stated she looked attractive but appeared unconvincing. Siegfried Kracauer, writing in Frankfurter Zeitung, thought Brooks’ not enough of a whore. While one German critic called Brooks “an inanimate dummy.” Variety’s correspondent in Germany chimed in with a critique hardly more sympathetic, “Louise Brooks, especially imported for the title role, did not pan out, due to no fault of hers. She is quite unsuited to the vamp type which was called for by the play from which the picture was made.”
Pandora’s Box played across Europe, where it was similarly received and cut according to local standards. In France, for example, censors thought it indecent for a father and son to vie sexually for the same woman. Their solution was to tinker with the titles and convert Alwa (Franz Lederer) from Dr. Schön’s son to his male secretary. Other changes were made in other countries. The film was also shown in Asian and South America.
By the time Pandora’s Box premiered in the United States in December 1929, nearly a third of the film was reportedly missing. The 55th Street Playhouse in New York City, the small art house that debuted the film, projected a statement lamenting that the film had been censored. The theater also apologized for the “added saccharine ending” in which Lulu joins the Salvation Army.
Quinn Martin, critic at the New York World, wrote “It was the privilege of a few reviewers to see Pandora’s Box shortly after it was received by its American exhibitors and before the New York censors got at it. In the beginning it appeared to this one to be a rather harmlessly lewd little exhibition with misery and murder and a touch of abnormalcy along other lines, but at that time, at least, it told a sort of story. Now, it is recommended principally, if at all, for its striking photographs of Miss Louise Brooks, the American actress. At least, the persons who have charge of our film morals have seen fit to leave Miss Brooks’s back, legs, and haircut as they pictured at the outset. Miss Brooks, therefore, retains all of her original charms. . . . It does occur to me that Miss Brooks, while one of the handsomest of all the screen girls I have seen, is still one of the most eloquently terrible actresses who ever looked a camera in the eye.”
Billboard magazine had a similar take, “This feature spent several weeks in the censor’s board’s cutting room: and the result of its stay is a badly contorted drama that from beginning to end reeks with sex and vice that have been so crudely handled as not even to be spicily entertaining. Louise Brooks and Fritz Kortner are starred, with Miss Brooks supposed to be a vampire who causes the ruin of everyone she meets. How anyone could fall for la belle Brooks with the clothes she wears in this vehicle is beyond imagination. . . . This is a silent production that has no business playing anything but guild theaters.”
Photoplay, one of the leading fan magazines of the time, noted “When the censors got through with this German-made picture featuring Louise Brooks, there was little left but a faint, musty odor. It is the story, both spicy and sordid, of a little dancing girl who spread evil everywhere without being too naughty herself. Interesting to American fans because it shows Louise, formerly an American ingénue in silent films, doing grand work as the evil-spreader.” Mordaunt Hall, critic for the New York Times, famously countered when he wrote, “Miss Brooks is attractive and she moves her head and eyes at the proper moment, but whether she is endeavoring to express joy, woe, anger or satisfaction it is often difficult to decide.” Variety put the nail in the coffin when its critic opined “Better for Louise Brooks had she contented exhibiting that supple form in two-reel comedies or Paramount features. Pandora’s Box, a rambling thing that doesn’t help her, nevertheless proves that Miss Brooks is not a dramatic lead.”
Regina Crewe, writing in the New York American, said “But not even the censors may be blamed for all the film’s deficiencies – the acting, for instance, and the rather absurd melodramatic story. . . . Unlike Anna May Wong, and other Hollywood actresses who have blossomed into skilled players under European influence, Miss Brooks doesn’t seem to have improved since her departure. She is comely as ever, but her pantomimic abilities are sadly limited. . . . The picture is one of the less deserving efforts and was received with apathy by the audience.”
But was it? Despite poor reviews, the film was widely written about and did well in its New York debut. The New York Sun reported Pandora’s Box “ . . . has smashed the Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse’s box office records. It will therefore be held for another week.” The film was, in fact, held over twice.
In 1929, however, sound had come in and poorly reviewed silent films from abroad were little in demand. Although exhibition records of the time are incomplete, the film would be rarely shown in America in the years following its New York debut. Pandora’s Box fell into obscurity, and was only remembered in reference works as a failed work by a noted German director. It took decades for film historians and audiences to rediscover the work. In his 1989 biography of Brooks, Barry Paris put it this way: “A case can be made that Pandora’s Box was the last of the silent films—not literally, but aesthetically. On the threshold of its premature death, the medium in Pandora achieved near perfection in form and content.”
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Lulu is a beautiful young woman who men find irresistible. She is being kept by the rich industrialist, Dr. Ludwig Schön. She is just his plaything, however, as he is engaged to be married to a respectable woman of his own class. To be rid of her, Schön arranges for Lulu to appear in his son’s musical revue, but the son too falls for Lulu’s charms. When Schön and his fiancée go to the theater, Lulu ensures that Schön is put in a compromising situation. The elder Schön now feels he must marry Lulu, knowing full well it will ruin his reputation. On the wedding day, everything comes to a crisis. Schön’s actions cost him his life, and Lulu is convicted of manslaughter. She escapes with the help of her old cronies, and together, they flee the country and enter a seemingly inescapable downward spiral toward destitution and further tragedy.
The film went into production in Berlin at the Nero-Film Studio between October 17 and November 23, 1928.
Outside of Germany, this motion picture was known to have been exhibited or written about under other titles including جعبهی پاندور (Arabic countries); La caja de Pandora (Argentina); Lulu (Argentina); Le boîte de Pandore (Belgium); Loulou (Belgium); A caixa de Pandora (Brazil); Кутията на Пандора (Bulgaria); La caja de Pandora (Chile); Lulu (Chile); Lulu La Pecadora (Cuba); Pandorina skrínka (Czechoslovakia); Umrít Büchse der Pandoru (Czechoslovakia); Pandoras æske (Denmark); Pandora’s Box (England); Pandora laegas (Estonia); Pandoran lipas (Finland); Loulou (France); Le boîte de Pandore (France); Λούλου (Greece); Lulu- το κουτί της Πανδώρας (Greece); Pandóra szelencéje (Hungary); Lulu (Italy); Il vaso di Pandora (Italy); Jack lo Sventratore (Italy); Pandoras lade (Latvia); Pandoros skrynia (Lithuania); Die Bucshe der Pandora (Luxembourg); Lou lou La Boite de Pandore (Luxembourg); La caja de Pandora (Mexico); De doos van Pandora (The Netherlands); Pandoras eske (Norway); Lulu (Poland); Puszka Pandory (Poland); A Bocéta de Pandora (Portugal); A caixa de Pandora (Portugal); Cutia Pandorei (Romania); Lulu (Slovenia); Pandorina skrinjica (Slovenia); La caja de Pandora (Spain); Pandoras ask (Sweden); Pandora’nýn Kutusuö (Turkey); Pandora’s Box (United States); La caja de Pandora (Uruguay); Lulu (Uruguay); Lulu (U.S.S.R.); Ящик Пандорьі (U.S.S.R.); Лулу (U.S.S.R.); and La caja de Pandora (Venezula). Additionally, contemporary screenings have been recorded in Israel and Northern Ireland.
The film is extant. Over the years, versions of the film have been released for home video on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray.
REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES:
— “Great Movies: Pandora’s Box” by Roger Ebert (RogerEbert.com, April 26, 1998).
— “Pandora’s Box” by Thomas Gladysz (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2006).
— “Lulu by the Bay: Louise Brooks is legend in Pandora’s Box” by Thomas Gladysz (SFGate, July 12, 2012).
— “Louise Brooks’s Pandora’s Box” by Graham Fuller (ReverseShot, November 2, 2015).
— “Lulu in New York: Pandora’s Box at Film Forum” by Thomas Gladysz (Huffington Post, March 16, 2016).