Temptation begs to flatten G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box by giving it a moralizing voice or treating it as a statute on character worth, in doing so succumbing to the bourgeois decree to dress up the film in airs that Pabst, and certainly main character Lulu, have no earthly use for. Played by Louise Brooks in a phenomenal tantrum of a performance at the heart of what is inherently a melodramatic sideshow of a film, Lulu is a man-killer and an earthquake but also an embodiment of the implacable drive to not only persist but discover oneself at the heart of the human condition. In a world that is a playground and a hot-house of self-discovery and self-preservation, our earthen notions of morality don’t really apply.
Male kind’s Pavlovian fetishization of this woman is frequently their comeuppance within Pandora’s Box, but it is not necessarily hers in the film’s final, transcendent image, an intoxicating swirl of earthly release and otherworldly acceptance. Enshrined in a pallor that is both angelic and ghostly, the final image severs her from a world she never accepted, and a world that seldom carved out more than a temporary space for her amidst its rogue’s gallery of men who abused her, and who she exerted a palpable pull over in rebellion. Lulu’s transgressive refusal to cater to society’s expectations of her, and her mutable ability to transcend the regulations and demarcations of her time period, ultimately send her spiraling outward because of her daring ability to frustrate a world that wishes to utilize her and throw her away.
Throwing away is impossible to do with Brooks in this film, who is inimitable and never disposable, sedimenting into audience assumptions and then slipping out from our fingers in possibly the most affectively magnetic performance by an actress in the history of the medium. China doll, harpy, vixen, and social scapegoat are less essences of her character than figments of a man’s imagination she embodies or adopts in a utilitarian sense in a film that vacillates between her agency to disrupt the world and passivity underneath its iron hammer. It is easy to reduce the film to Lulu as an agent of destruction, which she is. But the film’s fixation on her as an empathetic subject, as opposed to the object of men, renders any particular judgments about her mute, circumstantial, and compacted into the piston of assumption. Rather than teasing out stereotypes, Pandora’s Box constantly reconfigures them.
Brooks’ work is a devilish, malleable performance of self-as-society, a woman excavating a place in the world out of the shambles of society’s opinions about her. Flaunting metallically smooth hair with pointed fangs at the end in a statement of her clandestine venom, Lulu’s typecasting is a bewildering amalgam of pre-social innocence and concentrated, self-aware guile, someone who applies social expectations to confound them. Notions of innocence and guilt – the foundation of society’s proclivity to categorize woman as either the angel or the devil on the shoulder – are summarily dismissed in a film that reinterprets stereotypes as battlegrounds people use to discover their real selves. Any sense that she is the catalyst for the decrepit rot of society around her is not based in close inspection of the film itself; she is a harbinger of doom, yes, but only because she manipulates the rapidly unfurling post-jazz carousel of 1920s hedonism – evocative especially considering the maniacal, prodigal reaction to the economic crisis of Germany around this time – for her own use.
She drips over the film, but the film entraps and enshrines her, violating her and succumbing to her control. A mysterious witch’s brew of psychological decimation and amorous, gilded toybox, this is an expressionistic carnival of a motion picture with the gall to recalibrate the subfuscous mist and shadowy intoxication of the Weimar style away from conventional horror and toward a polyvalent smorgasbord of tones and moods that mystify and shake expectations of singularity. As composed and judiciously calculated as many of the images are, there’s something effusive an elusive about Pabst’s take on them; as if glimpsed through a prism, the world is both a well of possibility and alternative lives and a vise grip demarcating our outward desires. The soft focus, almost-translucent cinematography against the hard lines of the sets feels both virginal and bewilderingly mature, much like the contrasts in Brooks’ persona as well.
Hardly homework or even something so dry as required reading, Pandora’s Box exhibits an affective charge that is live-wire and present-tense throughout every minute, almost the platonic ideal of feature film as cosmic dust. Rather than portentously stacking meanings on meanings with a stiflingly deliberate nature, the film is so seductively youthful and unmediated – like a whiff or a rumor, something whisked in out of thin air – that it feels almost criminally uninhibited or concerned with mortal human readings. Analysis elides the almost unpremeditated beauty of a film that feels perpetually translucent, with purposes fluttering around us to be glimpsed in moments without ever fully clarifying their cores. Scenes are suggestions, implications, and luxuriant, lustrous emotions rather than statements; even the final heartbreak is both tragic denouement and pacifying, hopeful liberation. Much like Brooks’ Lulu herself, the film’s joie de vivre cannot be compartmentalized or categorized; it exists on its own terms.