Monday, 4 December 2017

Das Buch über Pandora… Pandora's Box (1929), with Stephen Horne and Pamela Hutchinson, Phoenix Cinema

Once more out of The Box my friends but there’s no getting tired of this film especially in the wonderful surroundings of the old Phoenix and with Stephen Horne’s endlessly-inventive playing.

This is a vital film, one of the cornerstones of the silent film canon and my gateway to the whole shebang (starting with a DVD purchase in Park Street, Bristol in 2003 if you want to know). Pandora’s Box is worthy of the highest recognition and it has long merited its own book: now it has one, written by silent film expert Pamela Hutchinson and it’s the book it deserved. With her Silent London blog, Pamela has been helping to re-invigorate the British silent scene and she has played a major part in opening up the world of live silent screenings for myself and many others.

Pamela writes with an expert eye, easy wit and steadfast concision; there is much attention to detail in the book but it is all explained with fluid precision. The research is thorough, with revelations both scandalous and surprising and this is one of the best of the BFI’s Film Classics series I’ve read,  achieving its key objectives with ease, Pandora’s Box is engrossing, informative and entertaining.

That said, perhaps the highest praise I can give is that it made me experience the film in a completely different way, informed by its break down of Pabst’s directorial style and the way he worked with Louise Brooks in particular. With just five weeks shooting, perfectionist Pabst managed to construct one of the greatest silent films and he made the absolute most of his uniquely eye-catching talent.

Not only was the great “bridge-burner” Brooks temperamentally unsuited to the job of movie star she was also just not that bothered. Pabst deserves more credit for plugging her super-natural energies into the context of his film especially as she spoke no German…

Pamela introduced the screening and included some delicious titbits, Marlene being on the verge of signing up as Lulu just as Paramount gave their approval for the loan of their 21-year old misfit and Brooks’ troubled relationship with most of her co-stars (Gustav Diessl excepted…). Brooksie crashed her career but she found subsequent redemption after this controversial film was rediscovered decades after its chances of success was censored away. She wrote with fierce eloquence about her old career and spent the last third of her life celebrated by cineastes and influencing so many… not just in film but across our culture: Brooks equals self-determinated cool and she is forever now.

The book balances the, er… books in terms of Herr Pabst and whilst his Nazi collaborations no doubt damaged his post-war reputation (he did voice his un-leveraged opinions after the war), you can see how his mico-management helped to bring out the most from his crew and cast. Hutchinson relates a story of how cameraman Günther Krampf argued over whether a shot of Brooks and Fritz Kortner canoodling on her couch could be made: the director wanted the camera to close in and then move up out of view of the illicit “action” below. Krampf said it couldn’t be done but it was and we saw it today.

Pabst encouraged his team to voice such opinion though and this team ethic no doubts helps explain the results… five weeks of intensive work that, nowadays, would barely allow for a few Josh Whedon re-shoots to lighten the Zac Snyder darkness of Justice League or similar blockbuster.

Pabst is known for his abilities with actors and whilst he cast for character as well as range he was delighted to discover that his Lulu was a professional dancer. The moments when Brooks dances are visceral and define her character so well especially in the opening sequence. Brooks describes their collaboration as that between a choreographer and dancer and it’s also the dance of light on the most perfectly coiffured bob in history.

Lulu also dances with Countess Augusta Geschwitz played by Alice Roberts/Roberte, who Hutchinson rightly points out deserves more credit for her ground-breaking portrayal of lesbian longing. The Countess is an important part of the story especially given the way she, like all the men, is ultimately discarded after use. She looks lovingly straight into Lulu’s light and is doomed to shrivel in the shade.

No one escapes unscathed as Lulu burns… least of all herself. Wedekin’s story is unrelenting and whilst Pabst moved away from it to create a more socially-conscious story there is a price to pay for the earthy spirit.

Stephen Horne accompanied using an electric keyboard, accordion, flute and assorted percussion and, it seemed to me that he was finding new themes and responses. His ability to weave defined progressions into a two-hours plus improvisation is extraordinary and whilst he could make CCT footage of the A10 entertaining, working with Pabst, Brooksie and company he pulls you right into the centre of their silvery-shadowed world.

In the end, as Francis Lederer’s Alwa staggers into the fog after the Salvation Army, you are slightly dazed… You have to hope for the best and that’s the best you can hope for as the poet Peter Wylie once said and hope is, as Pamela points out, the last gift from Pandora’s box.

I try to write about the experience of watching silent film live and normally that’s a combination of variables led by the film, the accompaniment, audience and auditorium. This book added a vital new element and, I know it’s a bit much to ask, but could we have some more Pam?

As it is, it’s a text I will return to. A five-star job!!

Pandora’s Box is available from all good booksellers, the Amazon and, of course the BFI. If you like the film, the actress, silent or any film-making you should buy with confidence.

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