By Nancy Friedman
(April 25, 2023)
Maligned, misunderstood, and mercilessly censored when it was released in 1929 – and virtually forgotten for the next three decades – Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) is today acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of silent cinema. That honor is attributable in part to the artistry of director Georg Wilhelm Pabst and cinematographer Günther Krampf, two giants of German film. But the film’s real magic resides in the indelible performance of its American star, Louise Brooks, whom the film historian David Thomson has called “one of the most mysterious and potent figures in the history of the cinema.” The British film critic Pamela Hutchinson has said that Brooks – with her impish smile, dancer’s lithe body, and gleaming black helmet of bobbed hair – “both defines the Roaring Twenties and stands outside it. She is timeless.”
You’ll be able to experience Pandora’s Box for yourself on Saturday, May 6, 2023, when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival brings a radiantly restored version to the big screen at Oakland’s Art Deco Paramount Theater, with live musical accompaniment by San Francisco’s Club Foot Orchestra with the SF Conservatory of Music.
Pandora’s Box takes its title from the Greek myth about the mortal woman given a box containing all the world’s ills: sickness, hunger, death, despair. Out of curiosity she opens the box, releasing the ills into the world, then quickly closes it again, leaving behind only hope. The story inspired Franz Wedekind (1864–1918) to write two related plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, between 1892 and 1895. (The playwright is perhaps better known now for Spring Awakening, which was adapted into an English-language musical in 2006.) Wedekind called his Lulu character “the personification of primitive sexuality who inspires evil unaware” and something of a monster; the Lulu plays were also “a broadside against capitalism and bourgeois morality,” writes Pamela Hutchinson.
The 1929 film moves the action forward three decades while retaining the real-life late-Victorian character Jack the Ripper. Lulu is now an example of “a New Woman of the Weimar era, independent and sexually experienced,” Hutchinson writes. In her guileless pursuit of pleasure she brings about the downfall of everyone in her orbit, and of herself.
The cast of Pandora’s Box was made up mostly of established European actors – German, Czech, Austrian, Belgian. Finding the right actress to portray Lulu, though, took many frustrating weeks. Several German actresses were considered and rejected because they were “too old” or unavailable. It has generally been reported that Pabst saw A Girl in Every Port (1928), a comedy directed by Howard Hawks and starring Louise Brooks as a cheerfully manipulative gold-digger and cast her. (Editor’s note: Thomas Gladysz contests this claim in his new Film International article, “Sin Lust Evil,” about the lost history of Louise Brooks and Pandora’s Box in the United States.)
Louise Brooks inspired the appearance and personality of Hollywood showgirl “Dixie Dugan,” the title character of two slightly risqué novels written by J. P. McEvoy and illustrated by John H. Striebel. They adapted the stories to a comic strip that debuted in 1929 and over the course of the strip’s 37-year run, Dixie became a less glamorous figure with a different look who held a variety of ordinary jobs.
Brooks was under contract at Paramount – she would later burn bridges by rejecting the restrictions of the studio system – and Pabst sent a request to the studio to lend her to him. By the time the cable from Hollywood finally arrived, Pabst was ready to sign 27-year-old Marlene Dietrich for the part. Brooks would later say that Pabst thought Dietrich was “too old and too obvious”; Brooks, by contrast, was 22, and she brought youthful innocence as well as sensuality to the role. In Lulu in Berlin, a 1974 documentary, Brooks – by then long retired and living a reclusive life in Rochester, New York – told filmmaker Richard Leacock: “I was simply playing myself – which is the hardest thing in the world to do.”
British Film Institute trailer (2009 restoration)
With its transgressive themes and downbeat ending, Pandora’s Box proved too much for gatekeepers of public morality. It was censored before its German premiere, in early 1929, and everywhere else it was screened. In the U.S., each locality had its own censorship board; by the time it opened in New York, in December 1929, nearly a third of the original film was missing. “The small art house in New York City that debuted the film even projected a statement lamenting the fact the film had been censored,” says Thomas Gladysz, the Sacramento-based founder of the Louise Brooks Society The theater also apologized for the tacked-on happy ending in which Lulu joins the Salvation Army. Despite poor reviews, however, the film was held over twice at Manhattan’s 55th Street Playhouse.
A 1929 review of a much-cut Pandora’s Box. The restored version that will be screened at the Paramount has a running time of 134 minutes.
After the early 1930s, Pandora’s Box virtually disappeared. Thomas Gladysz reports that “in 1943, Iris Barry, who started the Museum of Modern Art’s film department, told Louise Brooks the museum would not acquire a copy of Pandora’s Box because ‘it had no lasting value.’”
That sentiment began to shift in the late 1950s, after French film curator Henri Langlois presented an homage to Louise Brooks and her films at the Cinémathèque in Paris. (Asked about his choice, he replied: “There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks!”) Small advances in restoring Pandora’s Box were achieved in the 1990s, when a German film curator, Martin Koerber, discovered a list of the film’s original intertitles. But major restoration of Pandora’s Box would have to wait until the era of digital editing – and an unlikely confluence of talent and money.
Around 2010, Angela Holm, a student of film preservation at the George Eastman House in Rochester, contacted Anita Monga, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s artistic director, about restoring Pandora’s Box. “I told her she was crazy – that none of the major film archives had been able to do it,” Monga told me. Holm was undeterred, and together with San Francisco punk-rock impresario David Ferguson she secured funding for a restoration from Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, a generous supporter of anti-censorship initiatives and silent-film theaters. The restoration eventually cost “in the mid six figures,” Ferguson told 7 x 7 magazine in 2012, the year the restored Pandora’s Box premiered at the 17th San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
“Fixing the surviving prints of the film – most of which had out-of-focus shots – wasn’t possible with analog restoration,” says Anita Monga. It wasn’t until digital technology came into its own, around 2005 or 2006, that a clean restoration was achievable. International cooperation played a major role as well: Holm gathered bits and pieces of the film from archives in Italy, Russia, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands.
Here are some things to watch for when you see Pandora’s Box at the Paramount:
- Background objects. In the first act, the disreputable Schigolch – Lulu’s “first patron” and possibly her father – stands beside Lulu’s mantel, where a gnome-like figurine echoes his own facial features. A little later, Lulu’s current patron, Dr. Schön, picks up another object from that mantel: a little ceramic donkey. The analogy is made literal: Schön is an ass.
- Lulu’s dancing. Louise Brooks had danced since childhood in her native Kansas, and at 15 became the youngest member of the famed Denishawn modern-dance troupe in New York. (That phase of Brooks’s life is fictionalized in the 2018 film The Chaperone, starring Haley Lu Richardson.) She’d also danced in the Ziegfeld Follies. But when director Pabst asked Brooks to improvise a dance for Schigolch in Act I he had no knowledge of her dance experience. Brooks recalled him exclaiming “You’re a dancer!” in surprised pleasure.
- Countess Geschwitz. The character portrayed by Belgian actress Alice Roberts is often regarded as the first open lesbian on the screen. But according to Brooks’s account in Lulu in Hollywood, an essay collection published in 1982, Roberts – who was married to a man – “was prepared to go no further than repression in mannish suits.” In the wedding scene, where Geschwitz dances with Lulu in a close embrace, “she cheated her look past me to Mr. Pabst, who was making love to her off camera.”
- The jazz combo in the wedding scene. “They were a real group from the time known as Sid Kay’s Fellows,” says Thomas Gladysz. Formed in 1926 and led by Sigmund Petruschka (“Sid”) and Kurt Kaiser (“Kay”), the Fellows “were a popular dance band based in Berlin. In 1933, they accompanied Sidney Bechet during his recitals in the German capital, and they played across Europe. In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, Sid Kay’s Fellows were forbidden to perform publicly. They disbanded and transformed themselves into a studio orchestra and made recordings for the Jewish label Lukraphon.”
Complete Louise Brooks filmography at PandorasBox.com. This site will help you discover stories and images about Louise Brooks and it is worth bookmarking for return visits.
Read about creating the Club Foot Orchestra’s score.
Saturday, May 6, 2023, 7 p.m.
Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland
Become a member of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and get a discount.
- Avoid the Ticketmaster service charge and get tickets at the Paramount box office in person Fridays noon to 5 p.m. and two hours before showtime on May 6.
- Need help? email@example.com call 415 777-4908
The Paramount Theatre website is a treasure trove of information about one of the world’s most beautiful art deco theaters.
Nancy Friedman is a writer and branding consultant in Oakland, naming products and companies in virtually every category: a condom, a venture-capital firm, a brand of freezer-to-stovetop meals, an office chair, one of the first mobile payment systems in the United States, a photo-sharing app, a pioneer in the business of divorce funding. A former newspaper and magazine journalist, she now contributes regularly to Medium, the Visual Thesaurus, the Strong Language blog, and her own blog, Fritinancy. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Read more about her name-development process in interviews with me in the Wordnik blog and the Chicago Manual of Style Online.
When not working with words, Nancy swims wordlessly in San Francisco Bay with other members of the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club.