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DVD Pick: Pandora's Box (Criterion Collection)

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A Great Classic Film and an Unforgettable Performance

G.W. Pabst's psychologically complex, hypnotically resonant masterpiece Pandora's Box (1929) is a movie about a woman named Lulu, but it's difficult to maintain a sharp distinction between that character and the actress who portrayed her, Louise Brooks. In one of the most brilliant performances in cinema history, Brooks is as seductive and dangerous as the mythic allusion the film's title suggests. Pabst's direction and visual style are perfectly matched to the story, and Brooks gives a mesmerizing performance as Lulu.

One of the All-Time Best DVD Sets

Criterion Collection has released a two-disc DVD set that does justice to both this great film and its memorable leading lady. The feature movie has been restored by the Munich Film Museum, and the picture quality is very good. It's a silent film, and the intertitles are in German, but the DVD provides optional English subtitles. Also, the DVD offers a choice of four different musical scores. And there's an impressive English-language audio commentary track featuring two scholars, one male and European, the other female and American.

Disc Two is mostly about American actress Louise Brooks (1906-1985), who lived life on her own terms. There's a one-hour 1998 documentary on her, plus a 48-minute 1971 video interview with her. Packaged with the DVD set is a 96-page booklet that includes Kenneth Tynan's 1979 New Yorker essay "The Girl in the Black Helmet," the title of which refers to the way Brooks' hair looks in the movie.

Background to the Feature Film

Directed by G.W. Pabst, Pandora's Box was shot in Weimar Germany in 1928. It was based on a pair of German plays by Frank Wedekind about a woman named Lulu. Those two plays also served as the source material for the libretto of Alban Berg's opera Lulu.

The title of Pabst's movie gives us some idea of what to expect from it. According to Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on Earth. Zeus ordered her creation as part of his retaliation for Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and bestowing it upon mortals. Pandora was given a box and forbidden to open it, but she disobeyed and let out all the world's evils.

Strange Tale of an Amoral, Alluring Woman

In the film Pandora's Box, we first meet Lulu (Louise Brooks at age 21) in her upscale, modern Berlin apartment, where she lives alone. She is the kept woman of the well-to-do, middle-aged Dr. Schön. But he is only one of three people besotted with Lulu, the other two being his young adult son Alwa and the lesbian Countess Geschwitz.

Soon there's turmoil backstage at a variety show in which Lulu is performing, the oddest wedding reception sequence you're likely to see in any movie, a fatal shooting, a court trial and a sojourn on a casino boat. Throughout all this, Lulu blithely behaves just as she pleases, leaving behind her shattered lives and death. But it all ends up in London at Christmastime with a Salvation Army band and Jack the Ripper.

Meanwhile, drifting through the entire story is an old man named Schigolch whose status is ambiguous. Lulu treats him as if he is her beloved father, yet it seems he helped her get started in living off transactions that involve sex. As the movie winds down, it appears she is working as a streetwalker to support not only herself, but also Alwa and Schigolch.

DVD Review Continues on the Next Page - About the Musical Scores, the Bonus Materials and DVD Details

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