Surely one of the top ten films of the silent era, Pandora’s Box will be playing at Neue Galerie at 4pm today and on July 19th. Directed by G.W. Pabst and starring Louise Brooks in her breakout role, Box plays partly as a love story between the two. It wouldn’t be until Godard found Anna Karina that a director would lavish this much attention on a star: there’s hardly a scene that doesn’t warrant a caressing close up, a slight tilt to follow Brooks’s body as she somatizes some emotion. And one can understand Pabst’s infatuation—Brooks is hypnotic. Playing the role of a Lulu, a libertinish woman at odds with the world around her, every limb on Brooks’s body flies in the face of society, every joint seems freed from repression. And then there’s her impassive gaze, her inscrutable smile.
Instead of three acts, in Box we get seven, each one containing some bizarre twist of fate, a total reversal of fortune for Lulu. She is married, accidentally kills her husband, is convicted of manslaughter, escapes, runs away with her ex-husband’s son, is blackmailed, stays at some bizarre illegal gambling den, is blackmailed more, is sold to an Egyptian brothel, escapes, and, finally, is murdered by Jack the Ripper!
Even aside from Brooks’s indescribable screen presence, on the basis of cinematography alone Box stands out as a masterpiece of Weimar cinema. Light is ultra-directional, emanating from strange places and throwing the characters into sharp relief. Everything glows in that strange way that only old B&W nitrate film can glow. Brooks’s face is particularly prone to seeming like a light source as opposed to a mere reflector of light.
As the story of a free spirit not prone to self-reflection doomed by a society unaccommodating regarding liberty, Box is, almost to a T, a doppelganger of Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie. In fact, given that Godard nabbed Lulu’s haircut for Karina in that film, and named the character Nana, I would bet that it’s the unacknowledged source. (Although Nana is also a reference to Zola; leave it to Godard to get two references with one name.) Actually, with its lesbian subplot and unflinching view of the hypocrisies of patriarchy, one could make the argument that Box is more progressive than Godard’s work.