Pandora's Box, G.W. Pabst

The Troubled History of Silent Film ‘Pandora’s Box’

Its lesbian love interest was once modified and a saccharine ending tacked on, but a new controversy arises with G.W. Pabst’s silent film classic Pandora’s Box.

Pandora's Box
G.W. Pabst
Eureka Entertainment
30 October 2023 (UK)

Rob Hardy’s 2002 thriller Pandora’s Box has a troubled history. The film has stirred controversies, censorship, and critical disdain, and the original negative was lost. Hardy’s film only approximates the 1929 film G.W. Pabst made in Germany during the silent era, which remains a powerful piece of early cinema.

Eureka Entertainment recently released Pabst’s Pandora’s Box on Blu-ray as part of its Masters of Cinema series. This release is notable on a couple of accounts. It marks the film’s first-ever release on Blu-ray in England, and it marks the first-ever release anywhere of the Hugh Hefner-funded Martin Kroeber-Deutsche Kinemathek restoration completed in 2009. In all likelihood, this 133-minute, 2K digital restoration is the best version of the film we may see in our lifetime. Eureka’s single-disc disc box set, however, has its own troubles.

Before Pabst’s film was released, a minor controversy arose over the director’s selection of Louise Brooks to play the role of Lulu, the film’s central character. Pandora’s Box is based on two stage plays by German writer Frank Wedekind, who today is best known for the controversial drama Spring Awakening. At the time, some Germans (or at least German critics) felt they had a proprietary hold over Wedekind’s works, and casting a little-known American brunette was seen as an affront.

Pandora’s Box tells the story of Lulu, a prostitute and kept woman described as a “sex worker” in the Eureka liner notes, a “free spirit whose open sexuality breeds chaos in its wake”. She’s that and more. When the film was first released, it was met with indifference, disdain, and sometimes hostility. Some claimed Brooks could not act, while others complained of Pabst’s adaption and direction. Others took offense at the film’s bold subject matter; Pandora’s Box was censored pretty much wherever it was shown.

In France, for example, the Countess character – a lesbian in love with Lulu – was changed into a childhood friend. It was also thought indecent that a father and a son both vie for Lulu’s affections. The film’s titles were tinkered with, and the son instead became his father’s business secretary. In England, the Countess character was removed altogether, and an alternative, “happy ending” was inserted in which Lulu joins the Salvation Army.

The saccharine Salvation Army ending was shown in the United States, where the film played only sporadically in late 1929 and early 1930. There was little interest in the truncated, 66-minute production. Heavily censored, Pandora’s Box was a grim, silent, disjointed, foreign release at a time when talkies and happy-go-lucky musicals were dominating American screens. Pandora’s Box ended its days in the United States in small, out-of-the-way theaters where art house fair was shown to adults only. At some venues, it was considered little more than a “grind-house” attraction before the term came into use.

In 1943, Brooks met with Iris Barry, the founder of the Museum of Modern Art film department. Brooks hoped to convince Barry, then perhaps the most influential figure in the new field of film preservation, to acquire a print of Pandora’s Box for the MoMA collection. Such an acquisition might have helped revive Brooks’ career. Barry’s opinion carried considerable weight and did so for decades to come; however, much to Brooks’ disappointment, Barry told the actress the museum would not acquire a print because Pandora’s Box had “no lasting value”.

After that, Pandora’s Box faded from view, not only in the United States but pretty much everywhere around the world. In film histories, it was only rarely referenced as a failed work by an otherwise noted director. Until the ’70s, the film was seldom screened. 

As Kroeber notes in the informative video short included among the disc’s bonus material, no original negative of Pandora’s Box is thought to exist. All that survives, in a few scattered archives around the world, are versions “concocted” from later material. Some of this surviving material was out-of-focus, some worn, and some censored and cut. The print most moviegoers have seen likely dates to the ’50s or ’60s, from which inferior duplications were made from material featuring, according to Kroeber, “damage that seemed to be inscribed into the material forever.” The only path forward was a digital restoration. 

Kroeber has done a heroic deed in patching everything together and restoring the Pabst masterpiece – especially Pabst’s fluid editing. I’ve seen Pandora’s Box many times, including this version once on the big screen and now on my television via this Blu-ray release. This 1080p HD presentation looks great, even revelatory, in the clarity of details. As Kroeber told film historian Pamela Hutchinson in 2018, “you can see every flutter of Louise Brooks’s eyelashes”. I noticed Brooks’ freckles.

Besides the Kroeber piece, also included among the bonus material is a new audio commentary by critic Pamela Hutchinson, a new visual appreciation by author and critic Kat Ellinger, and a new video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson. The boxed set includes a 60-page booklet featuring new writing on Pandora’s Box by critics Imogen Sara Smith and Alexandra Heller Nicholas, alongside archival stills and imagery. There are optional English subtitles and an orchestral score by Peer Raben. The attractive hard case features artwork by Tony Stella.

Pandora’s Box, a masterpiece of Weimar cinema and one of the silent era’s great films, deserves all this extra attention. However, I wish Eureka and some of the authors of the bonus material would have taken better care in putting together their contributions. I won’t say this boxed set is riddled with errors, but I am tempted to because some are so egregious.

The accompanying booklet contains a generous selection of archival stills, some 30 images altogether. However, four are not from Pandora’s Box but the subsequent film Brooks made with Pabst, The Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). See pages 16, 19, 20, and 28. This is not the first time images from the two films have been mixed up. However, their inclusion in a booklet about Pandora’s Box implies they are images from the film. At least, that’s the way I read it. If they were meant to be merely illustrations, they should have been identified as being from a different production to avoid confusion. 

Facts matter, especially in this age of misinformation and fake A.I. imagery. And so does history, and so does getting things right. The wrong pictures in the accompanying booklet may seem like a minor thing and even an understandable mistake, given that Brooks made two films with Pabst. However, this error was carried over to no less an authoritative source of information than the London Times. In a November 2023 review, which noted the film’s “arresting modernity”, the Times ran one of the booklet pictures from Diary of a Lost Girl to illustrate its piece on Pandora’s Box. I will go out on a limb and guess that the newspaper received this publicity image from Eureka.

Though troublesome, the mixed-up booklet images are not the most egregious errors. They come in the video essay by Fiona Watson, which is a look at Brooks’ life and career. Whoever edited Watson’s piece included two pictures of a young girl who is not Louise Brooks. They are, in fact, two different youngsters from the ’20s, both of whom happen to have bobbed hair and resemble, in a general way, the future actress. Again, this is not the first time these particular images have been said to be Brooks. Each started out on the internet as a “young girl with Louise Brooks-like hair” and became Louise Brooks herself in the hands of some overly enthusiastic fan or eBay seller of images. 

We know what Louise Brooks looked like as a youngster. There are images in the Barry Paris biography of Brooks that depict her as a young girl and pre-teen. Unfortunately, the misidentified images have now wormed their way into the historical record via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and have ended up in what some may think of as an authoritative source of information: this Blu-ray release. Ughh. 

But let’s move on.

Pamela Hutchinson, the author of a 2017 book on Pandora’s Box (BFI Film Classics), delivers a model commentary. It is informed, observant, smart, and conversational. Pandora’s Box is a psychological drama, and Hutchinson makes many keen psychological observations.

Imogen Sara Smith’s booklet essay is also astute. She makes some very good points, including one about Lulu’s hair and the way it is styled differently in the film. As many times as I have seen Pandora’s Box, I hadn’t quite considered Brooks’ hairstyle as suggestive in the way the author points out. Overall, Smith’s piece is very good, though she slips up in describing the 1927 Brooks film The City Gone Wild as a breezy comedy. It’s not. It is a crime drama, an early gangster film directed by James Cruze. 

Today, Pandora’s Box is considered one of the great films of the silent era. It is still regularly screened around the world and still makes best-of lists in publications like Sight & Sound. Renowned film critics such as David Thomson, Roger Ebert, and Pauline Kael have all sung its praises, as have filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, who named it one of his favorite films.

Despite reservations regarding some of the bonus material, this Eureka release is something special – and highly recommended; it should also be noted that it is a limited-edition release numbering only 3,000 copies. If you’re thinking of purchasing a copy of this silent masterpiece, don’t hesitate – even if that means purchasing a multi-region Blu-ray player to view it.