Monday, September 27, 2010

80 years on, still wreaking havoc

I don't know why it's taken me so long to see Pandora's Box (1929) a film I have been reading about and hearing about for at least 40 years. Perhaps I was afraid that being German, silent and over two hours, it would be heavy going. I couldn't have been more wrong. The film is at least as breathtaking as it must have been 80 years ago. It needs no apologies, no excuses. It barely even needs historical context. Few films of any age leap off the screen with the power and immediacy of Pandora's Box, and especially not silent films.

Naturally, much of the power and immediacy come from the extreme direct and unaffected performance of Louise Brooks as Lulu, around whom much of the legend of this literally legendary film is built. As Orson Welles said in another context, "it's all true." Brooks triumphs in the first and most important task of the film actor--to appear to be unaware of the camera and of the fact that one is giving a performance. The best film performances do not appear to be constructed or considered, but "caught." Brooks simply is Lulu, the strangely innocent destroyer of men and their lives, the femme fatale whose fatale quality finally reaches even her own self. She is no immoral vampire, sucking the life out of her helpless victims, but an almost pre-moral toddler of sex, who tears the lives of others apart like a small child kicking over a castle of blocks, for fun and to see what happens.

She is a fool, but not a dullard. She has a strange intelligence, and she is one of the few femmes fatales who seems to enjoy sex for its own sake, rather than merely what it can do for her material circumstances. And Brooks has a powerful flesh impact--not in a blowzy way like Monroe or other conventional sex symbols, but with a glow of youth that could have been fresh and redeeming, but here carries the stink of corruption of death. There is an ambiguity, a duality in this performance that is indescribable. It has to be seen.

Lulu is a narcissist and a sociopath, but the people around her are far worse. Her "mentor" (read "pimp") Schigolch is an evil troll who encourages her in prostitution and murder. Her "lover" Schon clearly hates her for his obsession with her (you can see that in his face at the end of the clip that appears above). Her "true" lover Alwa, is young, weak and easily manipulated. Her final lover turns out to be Jack the Ripper. Lulu does not have the power to make this world evil--she is merely a reflection of the cesspool she finds herself in. That might make the film sound repulsive and difficult to watch, but it is riveting.

Much of this has to do with the brilliant cinematography and staging of the film. In the clip below, we see one of the most authentic and detailed stagings of a backstage setting, with only a modicum of exaggeration for comic effect. The clip illustrates the expressiveness and fluidity of silent film at its height. This is not a form that is "missing something," but has created a detailed and effective visual vocabulary and syntax. This is silent film that speaks for itself.

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