(Bit of a warning here. There are spoilers ahead. Admittedly, one of the movies is from 1929, but the other is from 2014. All warned? Good.)
Professional duties keep interfering with stuff that doesn’t pay, like my mumbling about film. Well, that’s life. So when I found myself with a morning free, I decided it was time to actually climb back on that horse and watch one of those movies I keep telling myself I’m going to watch. I am unsure whether it was because there was bright sunshine outside my home office or because of the movie itself that I felt so ambivalent about what I was watching.
What I was watching was GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, which is called things like “classic” and “the greatest silent movie ever made”. I’ve run into this before, movies that smart people positively gush over and yet I find myself unmoved (the ones that quickly come to mind are The Third Man, The Thief of Bagdad and Vertigo). Pandora’s Box is also called “surprisingly modern”, and perhaps that is what is working against it, in my eyes.
This is the story of Lulu, played famously by Louise Brooks, who is held up as sort of the platonic ideal of the flapper. Lulu is a young woman who is uninhibited, sexy and at the same time terribly naive; she lives fully in the moment, with little regard for the past or any apprehension as to where her actions may lead her. As the movie opens, she is the mistress of publishing magnate Dr. Schön (Fritz Kortner), an older man who is trying to end the relationship so he can marry the daughter of the Minister of the Interior. Getting Lulu cast as a lead singer in his son’s (Frances Lederer!) new musical revue doesn’t do the trick, either, when Schön shows up backstage with his fiancée and Lulu refuses to dance “for that woman!” It’s a ruse that allows her to once again get Schön under her sway, and as his engagement is ruined, he marries Lulu, although he assures his son “It will be the death of me.”
Well, it does indeed, when on his wedding day, Schön, in a fit of jealous depression, hands Lulu a gun and commands her to kill herself before he does it himself. In the ensuing struggle, Schön is fatally shot. Lulu is sentenced to five years for manslaughter, but her lowlife friends manage to spring her and smuggle her out of the country. While in hiding, she runs afoul of a white slaver, and manages to get everybody in her entourage murdered or ruined, until she winds up in a drafty garret in London. Desperately turning to prostitution, her first client is Jack the Ripper. And finally, the tale is over.
Now. The movie is based on two extremely popular German plays by Frank Wedekind, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. The story, starting with relationship soap operatics and transforming into melodramatic tragedy, was popular but controversial. Further controversy followed the movie version when Pabst cast American Louise Brooks as Lulu, a character considered to be thoroughly German, replacing Marlene Dietrich at the last moment (this actually freed up Dietrich to make The Blue Angel, so no harm, no foul).
Dietrich, though, would not have been a good fit for Lulu; when one thinks of Dietrich, one thinks of worldliness, and it is essential to the story that Lulu be pretty unaware of the truths of the world she moves through. A world run by men, who attempt to own her in one way or another, often quite literally. The one malicious act Lulu performs (more out of a childish jealousy than any true malice) is the scuttling of Schön’s engagement, from which all her future woes will descend. That once she is rescued from the courtroom by her friends, she returns to Schön’s home and takes an unhurried bath reveals more about the way she feels she moves through this world than anything else. Even at her lowest ebb, she charms Jack the Ripper into throwing away his knife and possibly seeking redemption, however momentary, in her arms. It’s not her fault her old friend, probable first pimp and possible father, Schigolch (Carl Goetz) left a knife on the table.
The title Pandora’s Box comes from the speech the prosecutor makes at Lulu’s trial, who claims that Lulu is the Pandora’s Box that released all sorts of evil into the life of Schön. It’s actually kind of a stupid speech, but it serves to set where Lulu exists in this world: something to be controlled. That’s the thing with all these myths and legends that have been used to rationalize the second-class citizenry of women through the centuries: whether it’s curiosity about what’s inside a box or a taste for apples – either way, presented as forms of seeking knowledge – they unleashed evil into the world, or original sin, or whatever the hell, and that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in, and it’s all their fault.
This ignores the fact that when Pandora opened the box a second time, she unleashed Hope into the world. And that Pandora, Eve, and any number of women whose stories have been lost also had to live in the world with evil, and sin, and general assholery. What the prosecutor doesn’t get is that Schon’s morbid determination that Lulu must equal death is what has unleashed the evils of the world onto Lulu. Of course not. Schön was a man, after all. He’s blameless in the eyes of the court – the world, even.
The character I feel the most sympathy for is the Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), a tuxedo-wearing lesbian who is just as smitten, if not moreso, with Lulu than any of the men, but is cast away towards the end to distract one of the members of Lulu’s increasingly desperate entourage, the trapeze artist Quast (Krafft-Raschig). Geschwitz is probably the best match for Lulu in the entire film, and her character’s eventual fate is particularly tragic.
It may be due to the comparative rarity of Louise Brooks movies that Pandora’s Box owes some of its lustre; Pabst warned Brooks she could end up much like Lulu if she didn’t mend her ways, and by her own admission, he was correct – her career lasted hardly another eight years.
Don’t get me wrong, though, this is a well-made movie. There is a reason it is held up as one of the crown jewels of Weimar-era cinema. The scenes backstage at the musical revue are quite entertaining, featuring comedian Sig Arno as a stage manager so harried he seems likely to explode into quivering pieces at any moment.
The “surprisingly modern” aspect just played against it, in my viewing, and that’s likely on me. Once again, having seen the movies that inspired it through the years renders any innovation fairly moot; but it is still worth seeing, if only for that fact.
I wanted to contrast this with the movie I watched directly afterwards, made 85 years later: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature-length version of her earlier short of the same name was getting quite a lot of talk on the festival circuit, and recently made the jump to home video, so I can finally say I’m gratified to find the praise earned.
Seemingly set in Iran (but filmed in California), Girl is the tale of, well, The Girl (Sheila Vand), a vampire who haunts a run-down city called Bad Town. The nature of the place is revealed early on, when our other protagonist, young Arash (Arash Marandi) walks across a bridge, and in the dry ditch below, we see bodies left to rot in the sun. Lots of bodies.
The Girl has a peculiar moral sense in such a messed-up place. Except for an unfortunate wino, we mostly see her kill men who are mistreating women, like the abusive pimp and drug dealer Saeed (Dominic Rains). She terrorizes one poor urchin into being “a good boy… or I’ll feed your eyes to lions!” One of the most haunting images of the story is The Girl riding through the night on her purloined skateboard, her chador flowing behind her like Dracula’s cape, or bat wings.
The Girl will meet Arash in one of the more delicious meet cutes in some time, as her perambulations in the night streets is interrupted by the sight of Arash, who was somewhat unwillingly dosed with Ecstasy at a costume party. He is dressed as Count Dracula, and is staring raptly at a street light. “I’m a vampire,” he informs the vampire. “But don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.” Completely lost in his drugged state, she wheels him to her home on the skateboard.
The growing relationship between The Girl and Arash is gently clumsy, perverse, and erotic in all the right ways, but never explicit; Amirpour manipulates the alternately shrinking and expanding space between the two beautifully. The Girl’s backstory, related by Amirpour in the featurettes and the enclosed graphic novel, is that she is nearly 200 years old, lonely and sad; she went to the desert to kill herself in the searing sun but keeps losing her courage; thus she finds herself in Bad Town. Vand is quite remarkable, standing out from a uniformly excellent cast; she plays well the stillness of a creature who has been so many places, and has been alive for so long, that nothing is worth hurrying or getting excited about. Her large, expressive eyes say a lot.
The parallels with Pandora’s Box are obvious, even beyond the black-and-white format, the dialogue in Farsi so we’re still reading white intertitles. Once again, we have a young man setting out on a journey with the woman who killed his father. This time though, he hesitates, actually pondering the course he is setting… and then continuing on. It’s that moment of reflection that gives the ending a slightly more upbeat feeling, a feeling of hopeful adventure instead of a descent into tragedy.
Whereas Lulu has no real agency in the world, The Girl seemingly has nothing but. If Lulu, as Frank Wedekind said, is constantly surprised by living in a world “riven by the demands of lust and greed”, The Girl long ago realized the parameters of that world and acts upon it, in her small way. Conversely, Lulu seems to expect the attention lavished upon her, but The Girl is surprised that Arash finds something worthwhile in her, something worth developing. They are mirror images in a very dark, very screwed-up world.