Combustible Celluloid
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With: Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Francis Lederer/Franz Lederer, Carl Goetz, Carl Raschig, Alice Roberts, Gustav Diessl/Gustav Diesel
Written by: Joseph Fleisler, G.W. Pabst, based on plays by Frank Wedekind
Directed by: G.W. Pabst (Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 125
Date: 01/30/1929

Pandora's Box (1928)

4 Stars (out of 4)

She's a Lulu

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This year the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has nabbed a crown jewel with a brand new, restored print of G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (1928), which has been making the rounds on the east coast for a few weeks now.

The cunning, playful and shockingly sensual Louise Brooks and workaday German director G.W. Pabst formed a symbiosis to create their masterpiece, and the pinnacle of both careers.

Brooks' mysterious, alluring gaze was the equal of Garbo's and superior to nearly everyone else, before or since. She had a twinkle in her eye and a sly, dazzling smile that enchanted an army of famous lovers and short-lived husbands. And of course, no one can forget that steely crop of black hair with its severe bangs and points. Even after 80 years, her first appearance onscreen is so potent as to inspire gasps.

Yet the Kansas-born beauty was stuck playing small, safe parts in Hollywood when Pabst, who had seen her in Howard Hawks' A Girl in Every Port, beckoned her to Berlin. She agreed, breaking her contract with Paramount in the process and angering the Hollywood elite.

The film's story had already been a sensation on the German stage, and Brooks slid into the role of Lulu as if she had been born to it. A dancer and a promiscuous maneater, Lulu starts by breaking up her lover's impending marriage to another woman and winds up hiding out with her lover's grown son, a low-life gambler. Even more scandalous (at least at the time), she dances with a woman at her own wedding! She takes her final lover, Jack the Ripper, because she likes his looks.

Pabst directs using a few strokes from the waning German Expressionism movement, and his backstage scenes during Lulu's big debut have been justly praised for their energy and realism. Pabst was a psychologically astute filmmaker, but it's the shockingly sensual, charismatic Brooks that makes the picture. She so inspired Pabst that they teamed up for a second film, the near-great Diary of a Lost Girl (currently available on Kino DVD). Decades later, Brooks published a book of witty and insightful essays about her days in Hollywood.

DVD Details: The Criterion Collection's new DVD transfers Pandora's Box from the recent 133-minute Munich Film Museum restoration, providing a depth and clarity unseen for ages. Viewers can choose from among four different musical scores, or a scholarly audio commentary track. A plethora of other extras includes the very good 1998 TV documentary, "Looking for Lulu," narrated by Shirley MacLaine.

Note: a version of this review also appeared in FLM Magazine.

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