pandora's box (1929)
Pandora's Box is an effervescent descent from the highs of its opening frames until the final, dark and foggy closing. Throughout, Pabst charts a steady decline from bright lights and promising futures to moody nights and lives left in ruin. The title is referenced only once as, mid-way through the film the prosecutor explains quickly the tale of Pandora's Box as it unleashed the evils of existence upon the world. From here on out the descent begins as Louise Brooks' Lulu, charming and unassuming in her explosive lust for life, catches all who cling to her in a whirlpool of personal devastation. Throughout the film, all who fall under her spell eventually render themselves in a state of hopeless addiction or vice as the most societally-maligned elements of their persona are forced up to the surface and begin to overtake them. Pabst portrays human beings as a house of cards of good behavior and taught values, ethics and social codes who come into contact with Brooks and have their personal box of perceived and taught evils irreversibly opened. Brooks does as she pleases, the polar opposite of all well-behaved citizens; she follows her true nature and is only interested in the whims of her own desires. This behavior is in stark contrast to the controlled demeanor of the upper class as well as the pious lower classes.
Pandora's Box touches a Freudian sensibility as the self-imposed constraints, a separation of behavior and desire are broken in each of our cast of characters. Brooks is the only one onscreen who retains her own self throughout, as she never imposed constraints on herself to begin with and lived with her Id unbound. Late in the film she remarks that she feels that the other characters, particularly the men, are "after [her] blood"; it is the sense of freedom she exhibits in a controlled world that they are after. Pabst's film exhibits little beyond this point of the human mind's self-imposed control being disrupted. As the film progresses, Brooks and her physical performance are what keeps the film engaging in any way. Pabst's expressionist visuals and lighting are the highlight of most sequences, as Brooks' costumes and long shadows hold much of the visual language and communication for the duration. When in scenes of inordinately high emotion, Pabst is able to deftly craft the visual elements to reflect the subtlety. Where the film falls short is in compounding the tale of a subconscious unbound and dialing up the intensity of the visuals to reflect, in an ever-more theatrical sense the feeling that the world is changing as the 'Pandora's Box' of each individual character is opened and leads to their ruin. We are treated to the subtle changes in mood as the playful early visuals give way to fog-filled gambling dens and the streets of London as Jack the Ripper haunts the streets. All in all, the tale is of human subordination painted over top of the real individual underneath it all. Pabst chooses to shows us this transformation in largely realist scenes and set-pieces, any theatricality resulting from Brooks' performance or her lavish costumes. The real confusion comes in the film's final moments as Brooks is placed in a scene opposite Jack the Ripper. When she extends kindness to him, humanity is activated as the expression of unconscious desire. When she arouses him sexually, his desire to murder her is activated all over again as he follows through with the act. The scene is as foggy as the photography in these final moments, yet Pabst seems to be affirming to his audience that the subconscious desires that Lulu raises in the characters need not always be viewed as desires leading to ill-fated decisions. In this way, it may be Pabst's final statement that he does not cast judgement on Lulu or any of the characters' actions. Just as desires of sexuality and vice do not inherently lead to destruction, so too does adhering to the society's demands not necessarily lead to success in this film. In all, we float through the film's runtime with a fluid movement as sincere and carefree as Brooks. Pabst never lingers on love or loss nor grief nor elation for longer than an instant, Brooks' Lulu never takes note of the past, we see, but merely reacts to her momentary desires as they arise, in an almost unknowable way. This keeps her strictly as an object in the film, and an object of desire for men and women alike, so that when we finally do witness her death, we come to wonder if it would matter to her at all.
Keeping Brooks as a symbol and not a character is both Pabst's best and worst decision. In this way we are never able to come to a human understanding of any of the events occurring in the film, yet are able to perceive the theater of it all in an abstract sense. The film never goes far enough into fantasy territory, either stylistically, visually or narratively to bring us any further or justify the messaging in the realism. We linger just long enough with each piece of melodrama to add a whimsy, but we never fully feel realized in any aspect of the picture. Pabst has much to work with, and brings us his vision well in many of the sequences, yet his aim always seems to be using each to set Brooks up with a compelling still-life rather than advancing any thematic understanding of the piece at hand. Pabst's exploration of unconscious desires ends up being a surprisingly controlled and behaved affair, minus Brooks kicking her feet up and performing for us with all the vivacious energy the rest of the picture is lacking.