May 4, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box

These notes accompany the screening of Pandora’s Box, May 5, 6, and 7 in Theater 3.

“What counts is the image. So I would still claim that the creator of the film is much more the director than the author of the scenario or the actors.” – G. W. Pabst

Georg Wilhelm Pabst (1885–1967) was the third member of the great Weimar directorial triumvirate, along with Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. In some ways he was the most elusive and mysterious of the three. Murnau was haunted by whatever demons went along with being homosexual in an uncongenial era. Pabst’s fellow Austrian, Lang, seemed to flirt with Fascism—his intellectual instincts were Teutonic, his wife was a Nazi, and he was offered control of the Reich’s film industry—before deciding to go west and ultimately winding up in Hollywood (where he became a practicing democrat, although reports of his tyrannical relations with coworkers probably would disqualify him from canonization). Pabst was a horse of a different color altogether, or, perhaps more correctly, several different colors. While Lang could only imagine New York for Metropolis, Pabst spent a few youthful years here. He came to film directing rather late, in 1923, but he had made several successful movies (Der Schatz, Die Freudlose Gasse, Geheimnisse Einer Seele, Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney) by the time of Die Buchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) in 1928.

Then a kind of intellectual wanderlust set in. He made a “Mountain film,” The White Hell of Pitz Palu, starring Leni Riefenstahl. He seemed to tack to the left with the antiwar Westfront 1918, Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, and the pro-proletariat Kameradschaft. When the Nazis came to power he, like Lang, went to France and then briefly to America (where he made A Modern Hero). After that, he returned to France and then went back to Germany at the outbreak of World War II, where he made two films under the Nazis. Following the war, he seemed to atone with several anti-Nazi films. As critic Lotte Eisner said, “He is full of contradictions.” Will the real G. W. Pabst please stand up? In his defense, he seems to have been a much nicer guy and more gracious colleague than Lang.

Pandora’s Box (which will be shown in a more fully restored version in the Museum’s Weimar show in November 2010) was adapted from two plays by Frank Wedekind, and made the American Louise Brooks briefly into an international star. Pabst had been on the brink of signing the little-known but more-knowing Marlene Dietrich to play Lulu, but opted at the last moment for the younger and more innocent-looking Brooks. (Dietrich would have sweet revenge a year later in landing the part of Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel and signing a long-term contract with Paramount, the very studio Brooks had ditched for Pabst.) The film is less conventionally Expressionistic and melodramatic and more fluid than Pabst’s earlier work. Where Murnau is a poet and Lang a mythologist, Pabst is mostly concerned with contemporary slants on psychology and sexuality. Taken in this sense, the film was extremely modern and remains so, but the audiences of 1928 were not ready for the film’s boldness and frankness, even in few-holds-barred Weimar Berlin. Interestingly, the film’s production coincided with Erich von Stroheim’s madly unsuccessful attempt to complete a similarly erotic story with Gloria Swanson, Queen Kelly.

In her wonderful and intelligent book Lulu in Hollywood, Brooks praises Pabst for his willingness to confront reality, “his truthful picture of this world of pleasure.” (She was to make one additional picture with him, Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen [Diary of a Lost Girl]). He seems to have recognized a unique vitality in her, or, as she once said, “It was clever of Pabst to know…that I possessed the tramp essence of Lulu.” The great Jean Renoir wrote that Pabst “knows how, better than anyone else, to direct actors. His characters emerge like his own children, created from fragments of his own heart and mind.” If my friend Russell Merritt is correct in calling Brooks’ Lulu a “narcissistic chameleon,” this may help to explain Pabst’s own chameleon-like qualities.