Wednesday 18 April 2007

Pandora's Box (1929) G W Pabst

I knew little about Pandora's Box except that it's a highly regarded German silent movie from G W Pabst that launched the career of American actor Louise Brooks and made her the definitive flapper of the jazz age. What I found was that Pabst, like some of the other German greats of the time, was really experimenting with the language of film. Rather than throw title cards at us like confetti, he tells us the story using suggestion, facial expression, body language. There's no need for many words, and in fact the recording I watched from IFC had a broken opening but I still picked up the plot straight away.

Louise Brooks plays Lulu, a young lady working as, shall we say, a high class escort or a paid companion. She's a prostitute in all but name, obviously not a cheap one but still one to make the townsfolk talk. She's also a dancer and the famous Rodrigo Quast wants to perform a trapeze act with her, leading her to even more high spirits than usual... and she appears from the outset to be someone in love with life itself, leaping around like a carefree nymph. Regardless of what her work really is, she appears to be the picture of knowing carnality and yet at the same time somehow also naive innocence, a thing of pure emotion. That she can juggle all of that and make it seem completely natural is astounding.

Anyway, one of her regular clients is Dr Peter Schön, a newspaper editor or some such played by Fritz Kortner. He's a serious and important man about to marry into his own class, to the daughter of Dr von Zarnikow, the Minister of the Interior, and of course he must give up Lulu to make that work. Not that things work out like that, of course. Meanwhile, Alwa, his son is also caught up in Lulu's spell, initially as merely a friend, the one person who dosn't want anything from her, but then as a full fledged devotee.

There are scenes of sheer genius here and the entirety of Act III leapt out at me in particular. It's set backstage at the revue that Lulu appears in for the Schöns and it's a ballet of choreography, composition and storytelling, almost entirely without words. There are characters galore, and we understand their backgrounds, their motivations and their interactions, all intuitively because of the sheer skill with which it was put together. Lulu pouts and rebels, Schön seethes and threatens, the theatre director flusters but keeps everything running, a whole string of performers act and interact, the balance of power shifts and reshifts. We're treated to the whole gamut of human emotion and it's masterpiece stuff.

Not all of it is Louise Brooks, though she is truly astonishing as Lulu throughout. Act III has as much to do with people behind the camera as in front of it, and the other actors have more than moments too. In Act IV Fritz Kortner steals a good deal of the spotlight, stalking his mansion on his wedding night like a Teutonic version of a demonic Jimmy Cagney. Carl Goetz as Lulu's dishevelled father does a powerful job too, but it's Kortner who dominates here. Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts and Krafft-Raschig each get their turn in the spotlight too.

The story takes us in a number of directions, from the homes of the rich and famous to the courtrooms of Germany, from gambling boats to London where Lulu and those still with her at the time come across Jack the Ripper, though as the time doesn't match up in the slightest this is presumably a fictional version of Jack a few decades later. It's a very powerful film that stands up well as cinematic art 78 years later, though not all of it is the masterwork that is Act III. It's certainly the greatest film I've seen from 1929, the odd year in the gap between the peak of the silent era in 1927 and 1928 and the coming of age of sound in the precodes really from 1931 onwards.

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