Film historian Pamela Hutchinson thinks Pandora’s Box is a confounding film. The German melodrama, which stars Louise Brooks as Lulu, is now considered one of the great films of the silent era. However, it wasn’t always so. As Hutchinson states in her just-published book, Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora), the 1929 film failed commercially at first, then soared to popularity long after it might have been forgotten. “It is a masterpiece that has been mistreated and misunderstood,” the author notes in her introduction.
Hutchinson, a London-based film critic who edits the Silent London website and writes on early film for the Guardian newspaper and Sight & Sound, has recently penned a book on this now iconic work. While exploring the history of its making, Hutchinson also challenges many of the assumptions around its legend. This is a book full of historical detail—but as much as it is scholarly, it’s also lots of fun. As Hutchinson wryly notes in her introduction, “Exploring the film entails a journey back and forth between Europe and America, and occasionally into the gutter.”
According to Hutchinson, Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) is the result of a “creative tension between two of film history’s most unusual characters.” Louise Brooks (1906-1985) was an American actress, “a reckless hedonist, a dancer turned movie actress with a riotous love life.” The Austrian-born G.W. Pabst (1885–1967) was “a serious and diligent actor turned director with a passion for the cinema and social justice.” Their working relationship while making Pandora’s Box (as well as in their subsequent 1929 film The Diary of a Lost Girl) was “dominated by conflict and a toxic sexual frisson.”
As Hutchinson observes, Brooks and Pabst are linked in other ways as well. “Each knew both the warm critical acclaim and the cold shoulder of the industry. They were fiercely opposed to censorship and artistic timidity, and yet the films they made together were mutilated in the name of morality.”
Hutchinson’s book looks back to place Pandora’s Box in its historical context; it also looks forward and investigates how this still popular old film speaks to new audiences. Already out in England, Pandora’s Box (BFI Film Classics) is released in the US in December.
You’ve just authored a new book on the 1929 film Pandora’s Box. How did the project come about?
The BFI Film Classics list is quite a well-known series, over here in Britain at least. One day someone asked me which film I would write one on if I ever had the chance and it just occurred to me – Pandora’s Box. Sometimes you backtrack on these spur-of-the-minute ideas, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that this film needed a monograph of its own, that there was so much to say about it, that it was a film that still resonated with audiences, and that writing a book on it would be fascinating.
Was it challenging to write an entire book on a single film? I suppose some might wonder how much there is to say.
There is far more to say about Pandora’s Box than I could fit into this book! I had to edit judiciously. The book combines history and criticism, as well as talking about how the film endures. I wanted to give as full a picture as possible of how the film came to be made, from Frank Wedekind writing his plays to the careers of G.W. Pabst and his crew and actors.
Also, I walk through Pandora’s Box act by act, drawing out more of the film’s meaning. There were so many questions about the film that intrigued me—and I wanted to answer them all. Why does Dr Schön drop his cigarette? Why is there a menorah in Lulu’s apartment? What does the letter K stand for? Then I gave over some space to talking about the film’s legacy, and what the image of Louise Brooks as Lulu stands for now.
The book’s description states that you “revisit and challenge many assumptions made about the film, its lead character and its star.” How so?
Louise Brooks is the voice of Pandora’s Box—she has written about the film and been interviewed about it more than anyone else involved in the production. This delights me, and I have a huge respect for her intellect, and her analysis of the film. But I wanted to dig deeper. Much of what she has said about the film has been taken as gospel, but there is often another side to the story.
I’m especially thinking about the character of Countess Geschwitz, and Alice Robert’s performance. I wanted to reclaim the Countess as a passionate, heroic character. And there’s a lot of criticism from elsewhere that I think confuses what Pabst is trying to do in his adaptation and he and Brooks are doing in the portrayal of Lulu. It’s always good to look at an old film with fresh eyes, but still with an understanding of the circumstances in which it was made.
What did you discover in writing the book that surprised you, or might surprise readers?
Well, there’s a credit on the film that always looked wrong to me, and I wanted to investigate that. In the end, I discovered quite a lot about the man credited with editing the film—including the fact that he almost definitely had nothing to do with cutting Pandora’s Box. He was a fascinating character, though, and while he didn’t edit the film, he did have an important role to play in its reception. In America, at least.
What does your book reveal that someone who has seen the film might not realize?
Lots, I hope! For example, did you know that Pabst nearly made the film with Lili Damita as Lulu in 1926? I tried to cram as much information and informed critical thinking into the book as possible. I have covered the production history and looked at the contribution of each actor and each key member of the crew, but I have trawled the imagery, too. It’s almost impossible to tear your eyes away from Brooks when watching Pandora’s Box, but if you do, Pabst is telling you the whole story in his design for the film, from the lighting to all those ominous objects in the background.
You are an English critic. What standing does Pandora’s Box have in the UK? And what standing does Louise Brooks have as well?
Put it this way, the BFI Southbank (what used to be called the National Film Theatre), screened Pandora’s Box four times last January, and then they showed it again in November, on its biggest screen, to coincide with the release of the book. I’m introducing the film at screenings up and down the country too. It’s very well liked here – I mean, it’s even set in London.
Pandora’s Box is considered one of the greats of silent film, and taught in several university film studies departments. Louise Brooks is every bit as popular here as she is in America I think – you see her image in magazines and in posters all the time. Thanks to Pandora’s Box, she’ll always be a European star as well as an American one. She both defines the Roaring Twenties and stands outside it—she is timeless.
The book’s description states that your book “investigates how the film speaks to new audiences.” How so?
Pandora’s Box will always feel modern—Lulu will always shock and enthral. And the image of Brooks as Lulu has been repeated and homaged so many times that the film is not confined to 1929, or “the silent era” or “Weimar Cinema”. Lulu, this particular Lulu, is everywhere. How wonderful for each person who discovers the film, to then discover the scintillating character of Brooks herself and her intelligent, provocative writing.
Pandora’s Box contains a lot of great moments. What is your favorite scene in the film?
This is a very difficult question. I think it has to be the backstage scene. Not so much for the confrontation in the prop room, but for the way Pabst manipulates all that complex action in the wings, and Brooks being so very Brooks, fighting the management with all her might. It’s a fiery sequence, full of humour as well as foreboding, and the seething emotions of the main players. And that moment when Lulu and Dr Schön first see each other? Electric.
Do you consider yourself a “fan” of Louise Brooks?
Of course. She was a wonderful actress, and an intelligent and perceptive writer. She lights up the screen even in her smaller roles. In her Pabst films she’s incandescent. I think she had a lot of sadness in her life, but she was full of fire and sexuality and she was so independent. She stood up for herself, and for other women.
In every word of hers that you read you sense her passions as well as her contradictions. She deserved better from her life in many ways, but she left us something, a fierce independence of spirit to aspire to.
When did you first become aware of Louise Brooks?
I was far too young to understand a word of it really, but I saw a snippet of a BBC documentary about Brooks (see below) — it must have been when I was six years old. I thought she looked like Betty Boop, who I thought was just brilliant, but the voiceover said that she had come from Hollywood to Europe and then she had been forgotten about. I thought that was so sad, as if she had left home and got lost.
But the image of Brooks, of her big eyes framed by that dinky bob, and her wide smile, that really stayed with me. I didn’t take an interest in silent films until a decade later, but Brooks was always special to me.
What’s next for you?
Well I always seem to be busy, writing about film as well as lecturing. I’m introducing Pandora’s Box at lots of screenings around the UK to promote the book, which is bound to be fun. I have lots of small projects on the go, including a small book on cinema that I’m editing. I’d love to write another book some day, so fingers crossed I get to do that in the not-too-distant future.