Pandora’s Box got off to a bad start. When the film premiered in Berlin in February of 1929, critics and the moviegoing public were largely dismissive of the much anticipated work. Reviews at the time were mixed, even hostile.
Based on two plays by the acclaimed German dramatist Frank Wedekind, Pandora’s Box tells the story of Lulu, a lovely, amoral, and somewhat petulant showgirl whose behavior leads to tragic consequences.
The idea of a film had been rejected by some who claimed “Lulu is inconceivable without the words that Wedekind made her speak.” To deflect criticism, director G.W. Pabst conducted a well-publicized search for an actress who was the right type: according to one film journal, the search was a topic of considerable interest, and “Everywhere one went one heard ‘What about Lulu?’ ‘Is Lulu found yet?’” Once the part was cast, filmgoers objected to the relatively unknown Louise Brooks in the role, doubting an American actress could play what was thought to be an essentially German character.
As a psychological study, some found Pandora’s Box a disappointment, regretting Pabst’s seeming retreat from the social and political engagement of his earlier works. Critics and censors were likewise taken aback by what was then considered a frank portrayal of sexuality. Even from afar, the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) writing in the English film journal Close Up, noted the controversy when she stated the film was “passed by the German censors after a stormy discussion of several hours duration.”
Pabst’s choice of Brooks was said to be a mistake, and her acting came under fire. Many German critics stated she looked attractive but appeared unconvincing. One critic even called Brooks “an inanimate dummy.” Variety’s correspondent in Germany chimed in with a critique hardly more sympathetic: “Louise Brooks, especially imported for the title role, did not pan out, due to no fault of hers. She is quite unsuited to the vamp type which was called for by the play from which the picture was made.”
Pandora’s Box played across Europe where it was similarly received and cut according to local standards. In France, for example, censors thought it indecent for a father and son to vie sexually for the same woman. Their solution was to tinker with the titles and convert Alwa (Franz Lederer) from Dr. Schön’s son to his male secretary. Other changes were made in other countries.
By the time Pandora’s Box premiered in the United States in December 1929, nearly a third of the film was reportedly missing. The 55th Street Playhouse in New York City, the small art house that debuted the film, projected a statement lamenting that the film had been censored. The theater also apologized for the “added saccharine ending” in which Lulu joins the Salvation Army.
American critics were as dismissive of the film and Brooks’s role as their European counterparts. Photoplay, one of the leading American film magazines, noted, “When the censors got through with this German-made picture featuring Louise Brooks, there was little left but a faint, musty odor.”
Quinn Martin, of the New York World, echoed the remarks of other newspaper critics when he wrote, “It does occur to me that Miss Brooks, while one of the handsomest of all the screen girls I have seen, is still one of the most eloquently terrible actresses who ever looked a camera in the eye.”
In the U.S., Pandora’s Box closed not long after it opened. By then, sound had come in and poorly reviewed silent films from abroad were little in demand. Although exhibition records of the time are incomplete, it seems the film was seldom shown in America in the years following its New York debut. One rare and telling screening took place in Newark, New Jersey, at the Little Theater, a second-run house not above showing sensational or exploitive fare. The film, then synchronized with “thrilling” sound effects and English titles, was described as “The German sensation that actually reveals most of the evils of the world” while offering “Raw reality! A bitter exposé of things you know but never discuss.” Newspaper ads for this 1931 screening warned “Adults Only.”
From there, the film fell further into obscurity. In 1943, Iris Barry, who started the Museum of Modern Art’s film department, met with Brooks, who was then living in near poverty in New York City. Barry’s opinion carried considerable weight (and did so for decades to come), and she told Brooks the museum would not acquire a copy of Pandora’s Box, as “it had no lasting value.”
Things began to change in the mid-1950s. James Card, a passionate devotee of silent movies and the founder and first curator of the Department of Film at the George Eastman House of Photography in Rochester, New York, saw Pandora’s Box at the Cinémathèque Française, which then held one of the few known copies of the film. Card was bowled over. He acquired a print from the Danish Film Museum, another holder, and returned home. Though the print was incomplete and in need of considerable work, Card showed Pandora’s Box along with Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl (also with Brooks) to audiences slowly catching up with—as renowned German critic Lotte Eisner put it in the 1950s—Brooks’s “miraculous” performance.
Those screenings helped stir interest in the actress and her surviving films. Over the years, Card’s championing of Pandora’s Box was joined by other film historians, curators, and critics, including Henri Langlois, Kevin Brownlow, and Kenneth Tynan. Eventually, the film’s reputation, intertwined with Brooks’s, began to grow.
In his acclaimed 1989 biography of Brooks, Barry Paris put it this way: “A case can be made that Pandora’s Box was the last of the silent films—not literally, but aesthetically. On the threshold of its premature death, the medium in Pandora achieved near perfection in form and content.”
Pandora’s Box has been screened numerous times in the years since its rediscovery, and perhaps nowhere more often than in the San Francisco Bay Area. One of those screenings was witnessed by a local music producer, David Ferguson, another by a silent film enthusiast, Angela Holm. And although the prints they saw were in need of considerable work, both were mesmerized by Brooks’s performance. Together, their efforts led to the exquisite restoration screening at this year’s festival.
Like Lulu, Pandora’s Box is a beautiful film with a troubled history. Controversial at the time of its making, criticized, censored, cut, and critically disregarded, Pabst’s 1929 film has emerged as one of the last great motion pictures of the silent era. Its restoration, and its redemption, have been decades in the making.
Thomas Gladysz is a Bay Area arts journalist and, since 1995, director of the Louise Brooks Society. He edited the “Louise Brooks edition” of The Diary of a Lost Girl.
Presented at 2012 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble