Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pandora's Box

There is a lot that can be said about Pandora's Box and Frank Wedekind's plays on which it is based. Indeed there are few historical periods of modern era more widely and extensively studied than the Weimar republic, specially its contributions to arts and culture. The criterion DVD has a commentary by two scholars of German cinema Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Ann Doane who announce in the beginning that they have "worked" on this film for more than twenty years. (It is actually all downhill from there. When they are not rehearsing the obvious, they fall down into a cliche-ridden academese, which sounds more like a sequence of buzz words from the academic discipline of feminist culture studies (too much superficial talk about the "gaze," and "agency"). Anyway, I think there is enough on internet and in books for the curious and of course watching the film without all the historical and theoretical baggage is a very rewarding experience in itself.)

After watching the film I read the original plays by Frank Wedekind too on which it is based. Though not as good as Spring Awakening it still is an extremely provocative piece of work. The only problem with it is that it is too rambling, overlong and highly repetitive. The stage versions are generally highly edited to make it more manageable. The film prunes some of the episodes from the play too, and very wisely so I think. The play follows sequence of events in the life of the eponymous heroine "Lulu" as it charts her decline and fall from a high-society temptress and a kept-woman in Berlin to a prostitute walking on the foggy streets of nighttime London eventually meeting a grisly end by the hands of Jack the ripper. The end is not really a spoiler because in one of scenes in the beginning of the play itself Lulu admits that she longs to fall into the arms of a sex-murderer. It is actually far from a naturalistic play and those looking for plausible situations or characters will be a little disappointed. The narrative is overly deterministic and all the scenes are there just to drive home a point, even at the risk of feeling heavy-handed and unreal.

The individual scenes in the play mainly underscore Wedekind's central theme about the essentially destructive nature of human sexuality. Lulu is presented as an embodiment of amoral (or rather beyond-moral) sexuality which only serves to wreak havoc in the lives of everyone she comes across. In scene after scene there are deaths, ruin, suicides and murders. She never plays any active part in any of these, she is always passive (that's what makes her different from a standard femme fatale). It is as if she destroys everything just by her very presence. Unlike traditional femme fatales her amorality is not calculative but entirely natural and un-self-conscious. It also helps that Louise Brooks, who is absolutely extraordinary in the role, is so different from the traditional image of femme fatale as portrayed on screen by the likes of Marlene Dietrich or Barbara Stanwyck. No offence meant for the fans of the either of the two (at least among the latter I include myself) but this role could only be played by Brooks. In fact Dietrich was initially considered for this role (a few years before The Blue Angel actually). With Dietrich it would have been a very different film altogether.

It is mainly because of Brooks that the film version of Lulu becomes a much more interesting character than she is in the play. Unlike in the play, in the film she is both, an abstraction and a very real and alluring figure, both at the same time. The film also departs in very fundamental ways in the final scene with the Jack the ripper. In the play it is a grand guignol scene, with shock, horror and brutal violence, while in the film it is a very moving and tragic scene. Jack is shown as a kind of tragic figure who struggles hard against his temptations when he is with Lulu but ultimately fails. There is also no gore, no blood - everything happens offscreen, all shown in a very indirect manner.

My only gripe with the film version vis-a-vis the play was the way it gives short shrift to the character of Countess Geshwitz. In the play there is an extensive subplot about her unrequited love for Lulu which is quite explicit in its portrait of lesbian sexual attraction, specially for its time. The film very disappointingly shifts her to the margins of the story, alongwith the whole lesbianism subplot which is barely noticeable. It is specially disappointing because otherwise the artists of the Weimar era are renowned for their revolutionary ideas about gender and sexuality.

Pabst instead adds a scene in the end showing the salvation army on Christmas which is not in the play at all which ends on a very hopeless note. It is as if he is saying that the only hope lies in somekind of desexualisation of the world as represented by Christmas and the Salvation army. Interestingly the original version of the film was deemed too shocking for the American audiences so they reedited the intertitles to show that Lulu herself joins the salvation army in the end! Now that would be a real optimistic and happy ending!

There's a lot of stuff to read about the film. For starters an essay here.

13 comments:

puccinio said...

That Thomas Elsasser guy is really not much help when it comes to analysing cinema. The problem with film academics today is quite specific in that it's not shared by others. Most people who like to do theories on cinema look at the medium like it's an anthropological and social tool and not one of artistic creation. Yes, artists do represent the consciousness of the society but they do more than just that. David Bordwell has been complaining about it for years.

The other thing is the lack of appreciation for high quality film criticism done in the past by Lotte Eisner and others on Weimar Cinema...a.k.a the Golden Age of German Cinema.

''Pandora's Box'' is considered by many to be the highest achievement of that period. I personally prefer ''Faust'' while others with great justification argue for ''M'', the ''Citizen Kane'' of Germany. But there's no doubt it's a great film.

Pabst's reputation has for years suffered because of the reputation of the two giants of German Cinema(no prizes for guessing whom) but he's one of the most gifted and original directors in Germany and the rest of the world. His other Brooks collaboration ''Diary of a Lost Girl'' is also great as is his collaboration with Greta Garbo ''The Joyless Street''.

And this is controversial because it's for years been maligned because the author of the source disliked it but his take on ''The Threepenny Opera'' is a masterpiece as well and although slightly different is not in the least compromised and with light of the coming storm(it was released in 1931) it's a very chilling film.

Alok said...

I haven't seen any of his other films. I particularly want to see Threepenny Opera which was I think recently issued on DVD. Will check it soon.

I actually don't have problems with people using films just as tool while they actually focus more on social and cultural history or theoretical problems about gender and social institutions.... It is just not the right thing for a commentary track. Weimar cinema in particular attracts a lot of high-brow criticism because films capture the intellectual and cultural history of the period so well.

One other thing I noticed while reading about the film was the extraordinary amount of space given to exploring the persona (onscreen and off) of Louise Brooks. It is true she is an indelible presence on screen and an enduring film icon like few others but still it seemed disproportionate.

puccinio said...

Well part of it as to do is with the fact that for films of that time even in Germany which had fewer social mores than Hollywood, for an actress particularly a Brooklyn New Yorker to play such a strong and unrepentant woman character is rare and what she brings to the film is simply insubstitutable, you said that if he had casted Dietrich it would have changed the film and that's impossible to deny.

The other thing is that Louise Brooks worked for Pabst by giving up Hollywood stardom for good, she did return to America in the 30's playing bit parts until retiring in 1938. It made her an icon for artists in cinema not just actors but film-makers as well, going for art over comfort.

Pabst himself made a risk by casting her, because Wedekind who was a darling of German theatre in the 20's and a hero for Brecht in his youth had in the character of Lulu created a very German role. Casting an American actress from New York was seen by many as selling out. This is why bringing ideology in art is so dangerous.

But then Pabst wasn't dogmatic in casting like for ''Threepenny Opera'' he saw fit to retain as much of the original cast as possible to ensure that the film still retained it's roots to the original by preserving the specific acting style that Brecht pioneered.

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Weimar cinema in particular attracts a lot of high-brow criticism because films capture the intellectual and cultural history of the period so well.
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But most of the criticism isn't that keen on looking at these films as major developments in cinema aesthetics. Like they still retain stereotypes of German Expressionism of excessive uses of shadow and chiarascuro when that's only true of few films. What few realize is that many of these films actually used location shooting whenever possible like ''Nosferatu'' and Lang's ''Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler'' as well as Joe May's ''Asphalt'' and of course some of Pabst's films.

They also used non actors on occasion like Lang casted actual underworld figures in ''M''. And of course they were pioneers in set design, mobile cameras by geniuses like F. A. Wagner and Karl Freund as well as Edgar G. Ulmer.

Part of this has to do with the fact that although cinema is an academic field, as such it doesn't hold the same respect as say literature or philosophy or even theatre does. People like Renoir or Ford are rarely invoked as compared to other playwrights and figures. When they talk about cinema they talk of it as a kind of hobby or novelty. Movie directors don't have academic standing as well at least in Anglo-America.

Like Kracauer's famous book on Weimar Cinema is held up to a greater extent than say Lotte Eisner's writings on the period.

And although it's interesting, it's analysis of German cinema as a roadmap of national self-destruction is kind of a backhanded insult to the directors and artists who devoted considerable effort at trying to be truthful to the audience about society.

Like Lang's ''M'' and the second Mabuse film(both banned by Nazis) portrayed a society on the eve of collapse. Andrew Sarris once said about Lang, that if Hitler didn't exist, Fritz would have to invent him.

Alok said...

I agree about the stereotypical simplification of much of German cinema at least in the popular consciousness. The images from Caligari and Nosferatu have become popular icons, identifiable to even those who haven't seen the films. This of course distorts the way early German cinema is perceived by people. I am actually guilty of doing it myself... It is like a reflex reaction, you will sit up and take notice only when the camera is at some extreme angle, the sets are angular and weird and the shadows are long. A film like 'M' uses so many different styles that if you focus only on the shadows and camera angles you will fail to notice so many other things. Same is true of Pandora's Box too, though I do think it is much less complex than M. Only in the final reels does the film become "expressionistic" with shadowy scenes of nighttime streets full of foggy abstractions which brilliantly captures the feelings of doom, menace and tragedy. For the rest of the film it uses more conventional use of framing and on the set props and carefully choreographed and edited scenes to tell the story.

I have come across similar readings of Kracauer's book elsewhere too and even though i don't think i understood a lot of what I read of it (I think I will probably understand more of it if I read it now) I still think it is unfair. He was pointing out and criticising certain aspects of German society which he claimed was reflected in the expressionist films - the craving for authority, the mass paranoia, distrust of rationality, nature of law and social and political institutions and so many other things. His book is a work of social history and criticism, an investigation into the mass psychology of a society in order to trace the roots of totalitarianism. He uses films only as tool and as evidence. I am obviously not well informed enough but there were lot of german films of the period which could have fit his definition of leftist social realism that he wanted more of and which could have weakened his central thesis but he chose to ignore them and instead focussed exclusively on Caligari and its stylistic descendents. I have been meaning to read this book and also The Haunted Screen by Eisner for quite some time. I am looking for a cheap copy somewhere since the library here doesn't have either of these and they are quite costly. There was also a recent book on Fritz Lang called The Cinema of Modernity by Tom Gunning which looked excellent when I looked at it in a bookstore... but then again too costly for my pocket right now.

Also reg Brooks, it was actually much worse. She was originally from Kansas city.

Puccinio said...

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There was also a recent book on Fritz Lang called The Cinema of Modernity by Tom Gunning which looked excellent
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I haven't read it but I heard it's one of the key texts on Lang. The title is appropriate though. Lang and Murnau(the Schiller and Goethe of German cinema) are perhaps the only Modernists in that early period of cinema. That is their films are genuine contributions to the Modernist movement of Pre-World War II and in many ways introduced the tenets of Modernist Cinema.

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He was pointing out and criticising certain aspects of German society which he claimed was reflected in the expressionist films - the craving for authority, the mass paranoia, distrust of rationality, nature of law and social and political institutions and so many other things.
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Well that's because Kracauer shared in part the notion of his pupil Theodor Adorno and the rest of the Frankfurt School looked at cinema as part of popular culture and so part of the culture industry and therefore kitsch by default. Kracauer at least shows appreciation for ''Der Letzte Mann'' though he disliked ''Faust''.

In part however his thesis is true. That the root causes, the weaknesses of German society are depicted in these films. ''Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler'' is kind of like a documentary of the economic inflation of early Weimar and certainly about the decadence of the German bourgeois(who by the way were the main supporters of Adolf H.) But I don't if it's bad translation or what but it seems to me that he's criticizing these films for that reason alone.

Then some of his notes like his piece on ''Der Blaue Engel'' being a portrait of the degradation of the intellectual is way, way off the mark. Sternberg said that film wasn't based on any aspect of Germany of that time. In fact, Fassbinder with ''Lola'' which is an adaptation of the same source novel and film showed the difference by giving his film a very strong political edge only shifted to West Germany after the war.

The majority of the stereotypes of German Expressionism arose for specific reasons that most have simply forgot. Like Caligair's strange sets, and shadow and fog came because it wanted to show the dreamlike world of the protagonist and that's why the scenes in the frame tale are shot and staged relatively realistically.

''Nosferatu'' although adapted from Stoker's book also based on a real life plague that actually happened recently and the film kind of reflects the desperation of the German people after the first World War.

The sad part in all this is that these theories based on stuff other than rock solid cinematic analysis as espoused by Bazin and the Cahiers critics; ends up getting more press and is usually more often cited as secondary sources than the real scholarship.

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Also reg Brooks, it was actually much worse. She was originally from Kansas city.
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So...?

antonia said...

puccinio, can you make an own blog please? you need lots of space to disperse your wisdom.

Alok said...

exactly my thoughts. I feel a bit embarassed of my own amateurish and newbie enthusiasms after reading your comments... :)

there are so many things to learn and the more you learn the more you realize how much more is still left to explore. Early German cinema interests me very much.. I have been trying to find some more time to read up on it in some detail, will definitely do it some time.

Also I was slightly wrong about the title of the Fritz Lang book. It is called The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. It seems to be even more accurate (the 'allegories' bit).

puccinio said...

Starting my own blog!!! Forget it, I have no skill at organizing that leave alone time and patience.

I like commenting here though so as long as it deals with my favourite films and directors I don't mind stepping in. I don't believe in false modesty but I'll say that watching movies and getting people to watch movies is kind of my raison d'etre and I am pretty good at it and I have seen literally a thousand or so movies, at least as far as I can make a census and most of the information I get is by reading books on movies or watching documentaries on cinema.

So really if you don't mind having me I wouldn't mind taking a residence here.

puccinio said...

And about the title of the Lang book...well I kind of preferred the misquoted title but the book's reputation still has my interest.

I don't like the word allegory and greatly prefer the word ''parable'' in it's stead.

Allegory leads to too much time wasting about matching dots between fiction and fact instead of saying what fiction reveals about fact which is the mission of the parable.

js said...

I've read the Gunning book. It is very good and would recommend it and others by him. Sabine Hake's work, too. Fruehlings Erwachen has been on my reading list, now I'm much more excited to read it. What deserves more attention than it's largely gotten are the early early german films, and Elsaesser has a nice compendium out on that too.

Alok said...

I have been trying to read just one single book on German cinema for some years now (the one by Kracauer) but still haven't read it in full. Now you add some more... the list keeps expanding.

One book by Elsaesser on Fassbinder is there in the library here. Will check sometime.

js said...

It's good to read Krakauer first--"Caligari to Hitler" is what you meant? because the later works like Elsaesser's _A Second Life_ do so much more to expand on and redefine (now) "classical" definitions of German cinema and esp. the Wilhelmine cinema. Had an excellent prof who has added even more important pieces.

btw, for puccinio, fyi, it takes all of 5 minutes to get a blog, and think of all the film clips you could post as examples and expand on, analyzing the clips moment by moment.

puccinio said...

It's not starting one that daunts as much as running one.

In any case I don't like the idea of posting clips and discussing them on the net. First of, films have to be seen on the biggest possible screen...I am aware that's not always possible but that's nevertheless how it's intended to be experienced by the makers.

Nevertheless nowadays with high quality TV sets and the popularity of letter-boxed DVD's you can see films on the original aspect ratio with high quality sound as many times as you want and you can study and look at scenes over and over again. That's an okay compromise or the best possible compromise(but still a compromise).

Seeing it on YouTube or whatever is the pits and an insult to the cinematic medium. I am aware that Alok did this and I don't mean it personally but it's the truth.

Moreover you can only discuss clips to an audience that has seen the film completely preferably more than once and only then at an interval after the screeing. So even if I did start a blog I'd never discuss a film like that.

Mostly it would just be information about upcoming screenings, retrospectives, director apperances, film festivals as well as new films or upcoming books on films. Information that's easily available on the internet and doesn't really need me spreading it.