Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora); Dir. G. W. Pabst. 1929. 100mins. Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Francis Lederer, Carl Goetz, Gustav Diessl.

I had the privilege of listening to pianist/composer Steve Sterner accompany the Film Forum’s showing of this treasure from the end of the silent era. Shot in Berlin, the film is a dizzying allegory of the mayhem wrought by the over-the-top allure of a carefree young woman. As the film opens we see Lulu (Brooks) languidly throwing herself about a plush apartment with a revolving door of male admirers spanning three generations, each with a different plan for this bewitching chanteuse. Carl Goetz’s tipsy Schigolch aims to put her in a trapeze act, while the lovestruck Dr. Schön (Kortner) and his equally enchanted son Alwa (Lederer) cast her in a stage revue. The backstage antics of this scene are a hilarious stream of petulant foot-stamping, the frantic scurrying of a wide-eyed stage manager, and steamy dressing room seduction. More innocent and endearing than a Madame Bovary, and yet somehow more beguiling than a Sister Carrie, her morality is so compartmentalized as to be almost non-existent. We see her flipping through a catalog of decadent, racy flapper dresses, and she eventually gets to model, in turn, a bridal gown, mourning weeds, and the rags of an exiled fugitive gamine, though this latter sign of her demise cannot dampen the spirits of this ebullient party girl. Pabst’s camera deals with Brooks and her willowy beauty on her own flighty terms, without the suspended facial close-ups that treated her contemporary Greta Garbo as a porcelain icon rather than flesh-and-blood woman. Anyone who longs to see the screen equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz-era gentlemen laid low by impossibly headstrong, demanding vixens should keep an eye out for screenings of this erotic classic.

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