Film Reviews

Pandora’s Box (1929) – Blu-ray Review

New from Eureka Entertainment is this restoration of the 1929 Louise Brooks-starring silent film Pandora’s Box, directed by GW Pabst (The Love of Jeanne Ney). The movie starts with some notes (translated from the film’s native German) that explain how the restoration came to be, after the film had been a flop in 1929, and came to prominence only with Louise Brooks’ growing re-emergence from the 1950s onwards.

With no original negatives known to exist, the film was recompiled, in the 1980s, from inferior copies from the 60s and 70s. Various tools have been used to match the grading between the versions and homogenise the look, though we are warned there is still damage, and the restoration follows the 1980s workprint. We are told also that this restoration was sponsored by Hugh Hefner. Sure enough, the image is, generally, very soft, though the stereo score is very nice indeed.

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The film deals with Lulu (Brooks), a beautiful young woman able to entrance all around her. When we meet her, she is the mistress of Dr Ludwig Schön (Fritz Kortner). Though he is of a higher social circle and engaged to married to another woman, Charlotte (Daisy D’ora). Schön arranges for Lulu to appear in his son Alwa’s musical revue (Alwa is played by Francis Lederer) and he also falls for Lulu. Eventually the elder Schön is put into a compromising position by Lulu, and left with little choice but to marry her, despite the reputational damage will cause him.

At their marriage celebration, Schön becomes – hypocritically – jealously enraged by her behaviour (with the film hinting – strongly, and often – at her promiscuity), and the melee that follows leads to his death. Sentenced to prison for manslaughter, Lulu manages to be spirited away, but ends up in sex work, finishing up, finally, in squalor in London, where she meets a terrible fate (a fate that leaves us a little unclear as to the time period in which the film is set). It is a fine film, hard-hitting for its time, and very adult, in an era predating the Hay’s Code (a US standard, but with influence worldwide, given the importance of that market).

Bonus features kick-off with a commentary by critic and film historian Pamela Hutchinson. She wrote the BFI guidebook to this film, and it is refreshing that she states these credentials up-front. It is very typical of the type of track normally provided by such figures, in that it is very fact heavy, and feels somewhat scholarly: full of studied detail on everyone involved, starting with stories of the promiscuity of original playwright Frank Wedekind, and how this feeds into the themes of the film. She leaves little-to-no dead air, and is a lively, knowledgeable presence – with the ‘historian’ part of her background very clear to see and to appreciate. Some the details are later seen in the essays found in the accompanying booklet, but they are well-told stories.

Other extras are more than decent for a 94-year-old film that was once though lost. ‘The New Woman and the Jazz Age’ is a video essay by Kat Ellinger, running to about 20 minutes. It is about women seen as dangerous in their time and posits that Pandora’s Box is about male entitlement and hypocrisy and compares and contrasts with another portrayal from the time, Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. It is a work that manages to be both wide-ranging and tightly focused at the same time. She argues that, for all the parallels, Lulu was something utterly unique as a character. ‘Godless Beasts’ is around 18 minutes and comes from David Cairns, a veteran of these sets. This is about the composition of the film, as well as Pabst – and his background – himself. A nuanced, literary, and highly cine-literate essay that is up to his usual high standards.

Finally, we have an essay from Fiona Watson. Watson is also a veteran of these sets, having worked with Cairns on releases including The Man Who Laughs and The Love of Jeanne Ney. Her essay, titled ‘Lulu in Wonderland’, runs to around 19 minutes, and it demonstrates that it is Cairns that probably brought the wonderfully offbeat tone – here beginning with Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz references – to previous collaborations. For all this, it is a serious, often hard-hitting essay that details the abuses Brooks endured in and around Cairns’ effort to capture Louise’s state of mind at various points in her biography. Finally, there is a short feature on the restoration of the film; this runs around eight minutes and is a technical talking head, along with a brief history of how it happened. All extras are freshly made for this release.

A reasonably standard example of the always excellent accompanying booklet arrives at 58 pages in length. Opening with a handful of slightly dark, unsettling, yet beautiful images, it has the usual two essays. The first, ‘Vital Spirit’ by Imogen Sara Smith, is comfortably the longer work, taking up nearly 40 pages of the booklet, and is a biography – of sorts – of Louise Brooks. Starting with the story behind her casting here, and her falling out with her Hollywood employers, after being low-balled on her contract, it then takes us through her life more widely, as well as pointing out the parallels to her Lulu character present in her own life.

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Although Pandora’s Box is the framing device for the essay, we learn a lot about her, including some very disturbing details about things that happened to her in childhood, as well as a growing feeling that the partying aspect of her life ended up hurting her career and reputation, with Brooks even suggesting that Lulu’s story is as close as you could find to her own. All of this makes for an occasionally tough if compelling read. The second essay, ‘This is the House that Jack Built’, by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (with both essays we get a paragraph giving the author’s background and credentials, making this a set that demonstrates that Eureka do listen to feedback) deals more with the themes arising from the film’s treatment of Lulu, the audience’s attachment to and identification with her, and how this relates to the character responsible for her ultimate fate. It reads as slightly pretentious, but this is not mutually exclusive to it being thought provoking.

All of this adds up to a really well-presented set, featuring lovely artwork, both on the cover and in the accompanying booklet. We have thoughtful extras, a fine commentary and a film as well restored as could ever be hoped. Well done, once again, for fine work from the Masters of Cinema range.

Pandora’s Box is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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