Pandora’s Box, (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1929)

This is a film classic from Weimar cinema and it is screening in its original 35mm format as part of the Centenary Celebrations of the Hebden Bridge Picture House. The film has become memorable for a number of reasons. One is the star, Louise Brooks, who worked in the burgeoning Hollywood studio system but also in Europe; and here film-makers bought out a luminous quality to her screen presence. Brooks was an attractive and vivacious and smart actress; her ‘Lulu in Hollywood’ (1974), recording her experiences in the film capital, is a great and informative read. Here she plays a ‘free spirit’ whose charisma has a fatal effect on the men that she meets.

In this film she was working with one of the fine directors of Weimar Cinema. G. W Pabst. Pabst was born in Austria but his major career was in Germany. He was good with actors, especially women; his Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse, 1925) features three divas, Asta Neilsen, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Pabst worked particularly in the ‘street’ film genre and in complex psychological dramas. He was noted for the fluid flow of the editing in his films. Following Pandora’s Box Pabst also directed Brooks in the very fine Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, 1929).

One reason for the quality of Pabst’s silent films is the skill and expertise of the craft people working in Weimar Cinema. They led Europe in the quality of their production design and construction; and the development of ‘an unchained camera’ was extremely influential, leading to German directors and craft people being recruited to the major Hollywood studios.

The film is an adaptation of an important German play Earth Spirit (Erdgeist, 1895) and Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1904) by Franz Wedekind. There had already been an earlier film adaptation with Asta Neilsen in the role of Lulu (1923); and there is a famous operatic adaptation, Lulu, by Alban Berg. In the play the character of Lulu is described as “the true animal, the wild, beautiful animal” and the “primal form of woman”.

In the play she is an ambiguous character; Pabst and Brooks bring a sense of natural innocence to the character who is much less of a femme fatale than in other versions. Wedekind’s play was controversial in its time as was this film adaptation. The film was censored in many countries including Britain where there was an altered and ludicrous ending.

The film opens in Berlin with Lulu’s many male admirers: we have major German film actors, Fritz Kortner as Dr. Ludwig Schön: Francis Lederer as Alwa Schön: Carl Goetz as Schigolch: Krafft-Raschig as Rodrigo Quast: and also Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). Here one gets a sense of the social whirl of the capital; often seen as decadent from outside. As the narrative develops Lulu has to leave Berlin and we see  her and her entourage on a ship based gambling venue and finally in the noirish East End of London.

Originally running for 133 minutes; this print has most of the cuts restored and runs for 131 minutes at 20 fps and in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. It has German title cards with English sub-titles. It also has a live musical accompaniment sponsored by Cinema for All – Yorkshire. An earlier and successful screening that they supported had a fine accompaniment of the classic Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925) by Darius Battiwalla. Darius is a fine and experienced accompanist and here he will have a very different classic to work with. It should be a rewarding two hours of screen time: Saturday December 4th at 4.30 p.m.

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