It was a mistake to make a movie with Louise Brooks: she was too beautiful for it ever to work. In Pandora’s Box director G.W. Pabst films her in such a way that puts her on an entirely different level from the rest of the cast. She acts with the camera, never with the other actors. Her features are too striking, too distinctively iconographic – with her pageboy hair, helmet-like in its stillness, she was made to be statuesque – for her to exist on the narrative level; she transcends it onto the plain of mythology (in the way that Barthes describes Garbo’s face as mythological).
Pabst’s name is inseparable from his star Brooks because she is the real art of his films; he put all of his effort into making her an immortal presence on screen. The plot of the film isn’t worth the bother. It is nonsensical on screen, and I do not wish to indulge in paragraphs of ridicule the way Andrew Sarris often does – I get his point quickly and skim until he gets back to his job: criticism.
The other problem with the film is that Pabst is neither Muranu nor Lang, his two major contemporaries at UFA in the late 1920s, and he also seems to be caught in the middle of their styles. Pabst can neither pull off the almost exclusively image based films of Murnau (with only one or two title-cards) or the elegant scripts of Lang. Thus, Pandora’s Box has minimal titles, but weak ones at that, and they are never up to their task. His usual long-shots do not convey much information, and when title-cards are intercut, it is up for grabs as to whose lines they are. If it weren’t for Louise Brooks, there wouldn’t be any faces to remember after the film ends. Then again, if she weren’t in the film, perhaps the other actors wouldn’t have been eclipsed and forgotten so easily.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.