Pandora’s Box Unleashes a Universe of Male Oppression

“He’s acting like he wants to buy me,” a flapper scowls at her shady landlord, her glossy black bob trembling. “I’d rather be thrown in prison.”

The first silent film to openly sympathize with a sex worker — and, for that matter, depict a fully realized lesbian character — G.W. Pabst’s 1929 Pandora’s Box has gathered dust for nearly a century, unavailable to the public at large. Featuring Kansas-born icon Louise Brooks in her debut role, this now classic German movie has been panned, censored, cut up, and abandoned. Combining and digitally restoring three duplications of the film that survived in three different countries, the new version provides a bleak, unsettling account of a showgirl’s ruin at the greedy hands of competing male suitors. 

Insouciant and irresistible, Lulu initially seems to personify a Weimar take on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope; wherever she goes, she activates desire and despair. But Pabst takes care to reveal the ways in which her body and person are vulnerable to male control as he twice includes close-up shots of men old and young squeezing the flesh of her bare upper arm. In turn, Lulu rebounds with her scrappy, lusty demeanor intact, more befuddled by male malevolence than personally affronted.

Dubbed a German Expressionist film in its press release, Pabst’s two-hour-plus melodrama is hardly awash with jagged shadows and sloping rooftops. It is not Murnau’s Nosferatu or Lang’s Metropolis. If it is Expressionist at all, it is so in acting style, not production design, which is painfully realistic, from the stale bread Lulu struggles to break to the tinsel drooping from the Salvation Army tree. Based loosely on two plays by Frank Wedekind, Pandora’s Box resists finger-wagging intertitles, presenting instead an amoral universe where women enjoy precious little agency if they don’t have their own money. 

As well-heeled friend Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) makes it increasingly clear that her love for Lulu is not platonic, their connection plays out as sincere, if not erotic. The Countess is no predator, but a tuxedoed protectress. “You’re the only one who can save me!” Lulu pleads with her friend toward the film’s frenzied climax. And indeed the Countess is the only one who makes a grave sacrifice to do so.

It may surprise some that the chief funder of the film’s overdue restoration was the late Hugh Hefner who, whatever his mixed track record for depicting women, was both an anti-censorship crusader and an ardent proponent of cinema preservation. Pandora’s Box was one of the most consistently censored films of its era and, much later, one of the last silent films to achieve canonical status before talkies took over. 

What the movie may be remembered for most — more than its lurid content or even Brooks’s riveting “it girl” insolence — is how it overtly acknowledges the factors that lead to its heroine’s demise. “Mr. Prosecutor!” demands the Countess, eyebrow arched, after Lulu has been convicted of manslaughter midway through the film, “Do you know what would have become of your wife if she had had to spend the nights of her childhood in cafes and cabarets?” As the Countess is hauled out of the courtroom kicking and screaming, her indignation becomes the audience’s. Ahead of its time and tossed away, Pandora’s Box reminds us that gender progress comes in fits and starts, and that so much of the world’s misery and evil stems from economic greed.  

Pandora’s Box is at the Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through February 20.

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