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 In co-operation with the Goethe-Institut Irland 



FEMME FATALE

 

PANDORA'S BOX

USA. 1929. Silent. B&W. 133 min.

Dir: G. W. Pabst

Cast: Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts

Script: Ladislaus Vajda


So far at this season of the Film Qlub, we have seen a number of neglected treasures which deserved to be screened, enjoyed, and discussed again. Our films have been either little known or totally forgotten, and often difficult to obtain.  But this is not the case with Pandora’s Box, a film which is widely considered to be a classic, which is often listed as one of the most important films of the silent era, and which has held the imagination of audiences again and again, remaining popular with critics and punters alike. Why is that? In no small measure, the significance of the film is tied in with the central performance of Louise Brooks, an extraordinary actor who created a rather unique screen (and off-screen) persona, and whose image came to represent the amoral sexual permissiveness and fast-living which we associate with “the roaring twenties”. This was a time of change, with Europe desperately trying to forget the horrors of The Great War, and with outsiders seeking the vibrancy and freedom of cosmopolitan urban centres. Berlin took over from Paris as the cultural capital of the western world, and as the queer Mecca. This was a time of experimentation in the visual arts, in literature, in film, but also in the bedroom – or so the myth goes. Many women had accessed the professions, becoming financially independent, and they did not think that marriage was the ultimate goal or motherhood the ultimate career. In some countries, women were even allowed to vote! Many representations of “vamps” (yes, the word comes from vampire)  from the nineteen twenties, sexually alluring but poisonous women, seem to both celebrate and censor the new attitudes. Many films punish the heroine at the end, but only after she has had a lot of fun, and the audience with her.

Pandora’s Box is not just memorable for its main character, Lulu, the “femme fatale” to upstage all femme fatales.  The Belgian actress Alice Roberts, as Countess Augusta Geschwitz, is just as memorable. Lulu’s androgynous charms are democratically bestowed on both men and women, and the Countess, an upper-class lesbian with a penchant for tailored suits and a heart about to be broken, is an easy target. It is hard to believe the reports that Roberts resisted playing an overt lesbian and had to be “persuaded” by the director, who, so the story goes, seduced her during the filming of Pandora’s Box. Perhaps Roberts was looking over the camera at Mr Pabst while she rehearsed the motions of a doomed love. Perhaps. But what we have been left with is a remarkable portrait of an assertive, educated, sensitive, elegant, generous, and intelligent lesbian, who is willing to make the greatest sacrifice imaginable for the woman she loves. G.W. Pabst could not have made this film in Hollywood, so he brought Brooks and Roberts to Berlin. Miss Brooks, an unfussy heterosexual who had several affairs with women, explained many years later that during the filming of Pandora’s Box Pabst was afraid that she would never come back from those Berlin lesbian nightclubs. Ah! Those were the days!


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