“Pandora’s Box” at the Oriental
Thanks to the critical success of both The Artist and Hugo last year, silent film is amid a mainstream renaissance. It’s good news for these old Hollywood treasures and even better news for viewers who happen to catch Milwaukee Film’s April Members Screening of Pandora’s Box, G.W. Pabst’s 1929 classic film that actually deserves to be called a classic.
Audiences at Wednesday night’s screening at the Oriental Theatre were not only treated to a stellar silent film, but also the ideal musical score. Swedish film score composer Matti Bye’s dread-filled piano accompaniment fit Pandora’s Box beautifully, building tension throughout the entire movie and even delivering one of the more satisfying cinematic jolts in recent memory.
The movie follows Lulu, an entrancing but naive dancer played by famous silent film star Louise Brooks, and her various ill-fated relationships. She tricks her older lover (Fritz Kortner) into marriage, but a jealous fight and a gunshot to the groom’s stomach causes their honeymoon to be cut short. Lulu is convicted of murder but flees the country with her lover’s son (Francis Lederer), who is also madly in love with the alluring beauty.
The story, with its numerous romantic triangles and hot-blooded killings, is pure melodrama. Jack the Ripper – yes, that Jack the Ripper – makes an extended cameo near the end. It’s almost a marvel that renowned high-brow melodrama extraordinaire Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Unfaithful) hasn’t attempted a remake.
Maybe that’s because Pabst’s film is melodrama made almost to perfection.
For one, it would be almost impossible to find a more ideal lead actress than Louise Brooks. Today, Brooks is noted for her black bob haircut—and more importantly—her modern acting style, wonderfully on display in Pandora’s Box.
The annoyingly over-expressive acting that many audiences associate with silent film is nowhere to be found. Instead, Brooks uses smaller, more natural facial reactions that make the character feel complex and real, even when the story’s events take an absurd turn. Lulu remains childishly likeable even as she drags others, as well as herself, toward tragedy.
Brooks isn’t the only performer to leave an impression. As the love-struck Dr. Schön, Kortner haunts nearly every frame as his love for Lulu turns into madness. Once again, there are no over-the-top expressions. Pabst and his cast smartly trust that the audience can figure out the character’s emotions without making them irritatingly blatant.
The closest thing to an exaggerated performance is Gustav Diessl’s turn as Jack the Ripper. His menacingly wide-eyed inner conflict with his murderous desires, however, is more terrifyingly authentic than terribly theatric.
The legendary German director is just as skilled with the film’s visuals as he is with his actors. Despite being more than 80 years old, Pandora’s Box looks stunning. Early scenes featuring Lulu and Dr. Schön gazing out on the bright city from her dark balcony appear almost high definition. As the story gets darker, so do the visuals. Pabst’s vision of London is almost a more terrifying monster than Jack the Ripper, showcasing the kind of rich, shadowy environments only a black-and-white film can adequately deliver.
Even with the recent acclaim for The Artist and Hugo, it’s hard to imagine the new re-invigoration of silent film penetrating far beyond movie aficionados and curious film students. For mainstream audiences bombarded into submission by high definition digital 3-D cinemas or Hollywood blockbusters featuring more explosions than lines of dialogue, watching a classic black-and-white silent movie can seem like homework.
That’s not the case with Pandora’s Box. Even 83 years after its original premiere, it feels more like recess.