Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Earthy spirit… Pandora's Box (1929), BFI with Stephen Horne

How many times have I watched this film and yet after a trying start to the year and the cruddiest of days I was once again completely and utterly in the moment from the first flash of Brooksie’s smile to the last: energised and engaged by a beguiling combination of Pabst’s genius and Stephen Horne’s way with musical instruments.

I sometimes almost forget that there are actually other performers in Pandora’s Box and I really should tip my hat to Fritz Kortner’s broodingly un-hinged masculinity as the sexually dumbfounded Dr. Ludwig Schön: he can’t live without her and he really can’t live with her. He attempts to move onto a more socially-suitable sexual target but back-stage his will proves inversely proportional to his physical power and he falls once more into the enticing arms of Lulu. As his fiancée opens the door the look of cruel triumph in Louise Brooks’ face is unsurpassably delicious.

Fritz Kortner broods
Other men are also available – in fact, for Lulu, most men and some women – with Schön’s son Alwa (Francis Lederer) next in the frame. He seems a genuine friend, the only one who doesn’t want anything from Lulu and that is why she likes him, although she does regret the fact that he may not love her. But of course he does and easily cracks once she applies the pressure of needing a well-tailored shoulder to cry on.

Who is Lulu? She is radiance and allure in concentrated tactical form with short-term sexual strategies that leave her companions confused and dazed. But she’s not the classic vamp and this film’s enduring structure provides her with more than that: she’s a curious cat and we know where that’s leading.

Like father like son
Carl Goetz as Schigolch is her original benefactor and father… a strange man unlikely to be a blood relative (sorry Carl) but who supports and feeds off his “daughter” right till the end. Maybe they are family after all as he is as concerned with earthly pleasure as she even if it’s brandy and Christmas pudding.

Schigolch initially tries to line up his protégé with the plump strong man Rodrigo Quast (Krafft-Raschig) but his offer of a circus double act is trumped when Schön poaches her for Alwa’s play… with consequences for all.

Brooks was just 22 when making this film and everything was coming to her as quickly and easily as for Lulu; attention just a smile away.

J. Hoberman, in his essay for the Criterion edition, claims that Pabst “virtually invented” Brooks and yet whilst there is ample focus on her throughout the film – a quite dazzling array of close-ups and stunning costumes – the director was working with a talent and a presence you can clearly see in her earlier films – not just A Girl in Every Port but also Beggars of Life and Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em.

Counterfactually we’ll never know what happens to Brooks minus GW Pabst and vice versa but what they made stays magnificently alive. Pandora’s Box is strongest when the focus is on its actress as in the opening sequence: the call girl sashaying her way powerfully around her plush apartment, enjoying her freedom, relishing her casually-exerted power - almost unconsciously alive and living every moment a thrill.

The story moves into darker tone as Lulu takes the stage and then Herr Doctor’s hand, celebrating her victory on stage in front of a thousand staring eyes.

The loyal Countess
 The women are manipulated as easily as the men including poor love-sick Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) who will do anything for her girl even if, when intimacy looks near, Lulu just shrugs it off with a smile that lingers very little on any serious thought of her friend’s true intention.

Lulu just is, even when taking out the competition, Schön’s intended Charlotte Marie Adelaide von Zarnikow (Daisy D'ora), despatched with the venomous glee described above by the film’s and the silent era’s sexual superpower.

The former dancer and Ziegfeld Girl power-glides through the film, spinning her way through Pabst’s greedy focus with boundless energy, bible black eyes and that perfect pout so rich with the promise of her smile.

Yes, curls. What of it?
But then the restraining order kicks in and I need a little more objective contextual reasoning…

Lulu and Jack: why is that such a perfect couple? Gustav Diessl played Jack the Ripper, much to Louise’s delight as he was her pick of the cast… He is the man “no one can save”, he doesn’t even have any money and yet Lulu takes him upstairs just because she likes him. Curiosity killing the cat or something more? The Ripper kills the things he loves and the connection to the “little death” is hard to ignore yet what’s in it for Lulu? Does she want to put everything back in the box and is this the only way she can free Alwa and Schigolch?

Gustav Diessl, definitely not Stephen Horne
Stephen Horne played so carefully well in these moments. This being one of The Canon, he must have played along dozens of times and yet his accompaniment was as fresh as the breeze that seems to always whisper Louise and he paced his affecting phrasing with jazz-age assurance - like Miles Davis – leaving gaps of intent that enriched the notes to follow.

This was as close to silent cinematic perfection as you have any right to expect on the 3rd day of a nervy New Year: if you haven’t seen Lulu on the big screen you really don’t want to miss this.

Pandora’s Box plays three more times at the BFI - with more excellent live accompanists - and you should book your ticket now! You really don't want to upset Lulu do you?!

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