Though banned when first released, our third Kanopy selection, Austrian director G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, is now considered one of the great classics of the silent era, and an example of German cinema at its best, along with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. In 1929, the German director G. W. Pabst incorporated Frank Wedekind’s Lulu-cycle plays Earth Spirit (Erdgeist, 1895) and Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1904) into a silent filmic adaptation that he retitled as simply Pandora’s Box (Germany, 1929).
In his reworking of these plays, Pabst came to explore the nature and function of Lulu, the text’s major protagonist (play by Louise Brooks in the film version), as an image-object—a complex amalgam of and experimentation with various formations of the on-screen image. Both alluring and mysterious, Lulu famously becomes embodied over the course of the film as an apparitional art object marked by what Wedekind originally understood and depicted as a certain “still life” (Earth Spirit Act 1, Scene 2).
Pabst’s Lulu becomes a cinematic image-object in two very distinct ways: (1) she is physically equated to a series of her own photographic and portraitured images in the film’s diegesis, and (2) through Pabst’s cinematographic techniques, she is repeatedly bounded and effectively framed by both subjects and objects throughout the film with the result that Pabst equates her to the framed image extra-diegetically as well. The complicated nature of Lulu’s social valence within the film and her conscious representation as a material art object creates a continuous fluctuation between these two polarized registers of identity within the singular appearance of her own on-screen image. Lulu’s resonance as both human presence and as art object marks the reification of the natural and social characters acquired as her image comes into its objective existence in Pabst’s film, establishing that image as nothing more than a host of internal complexities and anxieties. In these and related ways, Pabst’s Pandora’s Box toys with the German lichtspiel through its mixing of impressionist and realist motifs.
Thanks to Andy Burkett of the English Department (and the Film Studies board) for this brief overview and treatment of Pabst’s film. It is drawn from Burkett’s investigation of Pandora’s Box and aesthetic theory in his article, “The Image Beyond the Image: G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) and the Aesthetics of the Cinematic Image-Object,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 24.3 (2007): 233-247.
This is the third in a series of weekly films selected and introduced by Film Studies faculty from the Kanopy streaming service subscribed to by Schaffer Library. You can access the Kanopy service so long as you are on campus or using the college VPN: at https://union.kanopystreaming.com