#47. Pandora’s Box (1929)

Pandora’s Box strikes me as more skillful and smart than enjoyable. It’s an interesting look into relationships and gender dynamics but, as a story, I think it’s a bit lacking. There were a few scenes I thought were engrossing (even if the movie itself is a bit long) and I was kinda curious about how it’d turn out, who’d end up with whom and where they’d go, but I was also uncomfortable with a lot of what plays out here because whenever a major scene would pass, and I’d try to think critically about it, what became clearer and clearer is that the immediate lens through which a 21st century viewer has to look at this movie is a feminist lens, as it’s basically about how a bunch of different men go crazy over a woman’s sexuality (crazy in a bad way: jealousy, shock rage), and the reason it made me uncomfortable is because the only honest way I can look at these scenes is to acknowledge that, in my own relationships, I don’t think I’ve ever been 100% comfortable with my girlfriends’ sexuality. Like I’m an advocate for it, and when one of my students or one of the nineteen- or twenty-year-old colleagues at the restaurant expresses anxiety about her “number” (of partners) with this tone like she’s looking for consolation, I’m quick to wave it away and give the rote lecture of “you’re young, have fun, no shame in this” and so on. But then, in my personal life, I end up feeling totally disarmed whenever I’m dating somebody who’s had more partners than I have. Turn into a nightmare of insecurity. But it doesn’t even have to be about the number of partners. If a woman’s just really forward with me, or if she initiates physical stuff, I feel…what? I don’t know. Something insecure and inherently sexist. I’ve told the story here about my first girlfriend, when I was thirteen, whom I hassled about having blown one of her friends like a year before we even met. I was embarrassed and scared about my own comparative inexperience, and so I tried to make her feel like I occupied some sort of moral high ground. I made her feel really bad about it. A few days later I hassled a girlfriend because she’d hooked up with somebody like five days before we started dating. Asked a thousand jealous questions about every party she went to. And there’s this impulse to look back on these things and think, “Gee, I was a pretty insecure teenager,” and then kinda shrug that behavior away as like the foibles of puppy love but, shit, it’s a big nail in my moral shoe to think now of how all that shaming must’ve fucked with these girls who were just discovering their sexuality.

pandora's box loulou
Louise Brooks as Lulu (or Loulou), who communicates a hypnotic sexuality just in how she moves, how she looks at people, her posing.

But even recently, not long after college, I dated somebody who talked a lot about her sex life from before, as I did mine, but who sprinkled enough clues into conversation to suggest that she’d had quite a few more partners than I’d had. I started asking questions that I thought were discreet, trying to get an exact number, and when she finally just called me out on it I think it was clear to both of us that this affair wasn’t going places — because, God bless her for trying, but how can you date somebody (me) who, while you’re giving them all your attention, is bitching about how, once upon a time, you gave it to somebody else?

pandora's box 2.jpgSo I have some growing up to do. This stupid pettiness is one of several reasons for not dating right now. Short on time, short on cash — but I’m also just not mature enough to take up residency in an independent person’s life when I know that my insecurity’s gonna start asking them to make all these accommodations. But here’s a rub: do I overcome my ineptitude as a boyfriend by getting practice, by dating and trying to negotiate the differences, or by just waiting it out, maturing on my own, start dating seriously once I have a good solid sense of who and where I am, who and where I wanna be, etc.?

The tactic being used by jealous men in Pandora’s Box is the weaponization of guilt. When the doctor who comes to visit Lulu (Louise Brooks, who’s amazing, with a performance kinda reminiscent of the mistress from Murnau’s Sunrise) in the beginning to tell her that he can no longer see her, since he’s about to marry somebody else, he ends up storming out, furious, because there’s another man in her apartment. Turns out the guy’s her dad. But that basically sets the tone for everything: this adulterer is sleeping with her, and getting mad because he thinks she’s sleeping with somebody else. When the doctor’s son later asks the doc why he doesn’t marry Lulu, the doctor is firm in his conviction that she isn’t the sort of woman that one should marry. She’s outta control, he says. Which, yeah, is kinda true. She lapses into hysterics at times and can show a bizarre lack of emotion about certain things (immediately upon returning to the apartment where she recently shot a man to death in self defense, she invites a man up for sex, and then frolics about contentedly) — but the doctor is ultimately the one who loses his mind.

pandora's box 1

The movie’s got a weird ending that I kinda like, philosophically (Jack the Ripper appears and it’s a reminder that real people, whatever their occupations or life paths, are susceptible to random horrible misfortune — and it adds to the larger commentary on how men take to women’s sexuality), but I’m not sure about how it complements the story. Anyway. Good movie. Bit of a therapy session.


  • [I think WordPress ate my comment, so reposting:]
    Good review. Reminds me of a joke & stop me if you’ve heard this one: Somebody goes up to a farmer, & he goes “Hey, Mr. Farmer, how many sexual partners have you had?” You know where it goes: “He was having sex with sheep. … A lot of them.” The number of sheep isn’t really the joke, nor is it the farmer falling asleep because he’s counting sheep. The joke is the farmer’s security with his “number” & his cross-species sexual activity. No anxiety about either; instead, peaceful sleep.
    Imagine how the sheep feel. My guess would be it’s whatever the ovine equivalent is of a “plurality of isolations,” like that experienced by the hypothetical group of people waiting for the bus at Place Saint-Germain in Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason: “… a new type of ‘external-internal’ relation by the action of the practico-inert field which transforms contradiction in the milieu of the [Wether] into [shear-iality]” (translating from late, amphetamine-addled Sartre into the lexicon of sheep husbandry).
    To be a unit in part of a series and—unlike the sheep—to be conscious of it, that’s part of the insecurity you talk about. When confronted with female sexuality, men experience themselves as part of a series (of sexual partners), and realize that they are not unique. (I’m sure this works over a much larger, pansexual field, but allow me to be grossly reductive for a moment.) The unit-being (borrowing from Sartre again) of the group is unique, but it lies outside of them. They have no control over it, because the woman selects the group’s members. Men can differentiate themselves from the other members of that group only through “the simple materiality of the[ir] organism,” which in this situation would mean penis size, among other crudities. (The irony here is that the “simple materiality” of eyeball placement w/r/t penis location produces foreshortening when men look down at it—it always looks smaller than it is when directly self-seen.)
    The representation of female sexuality in Pandora’s Box (and in the larger Lulu nexus: Wedekind’s plays, Berg’s opera, Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, et. al.) is powerful, yes, but odd, & hard to account for without pairing it with the representation of male sexuality as an experience of seriality. Lulu’s “bizarre lack of emotion” is intentional on the part of Pabst himself, who limited Brooks to a single emotion per scene. The idea is to occlude the round character (Forster) that does the selecting of partners behind the flat character that each partner perceives her to be. The camera shoots from within that group’s unit-being, & the seriality of scenes produces the seriality of Lulu’s impulses, which are directed at a seriality of (largely) male objects. (I don’t have anything intelligent to say about Lulu’s relationship with the Countess, aside from noting that typical representations of lesbians heighten male arousal, jealousy, & paranoia.) Any authentic interiority on Lulu’s part lies outside the film. And most contemporary German viewers would realize, since Lulu already had an offscreen existence on stage & page in Wedekind’s source material. (The film was a flop in Germany & irate German moviegoers complained about an American playing “our beloved Lulu.”) For current viewers, her existence has spread even farther. It is uncanny: a flat a character whose images & incarnations proliferate in other mediums, and so appears to live in the outside world.
    Without this effect, the film’s representation of sex & seduction would be closer to that of The Blue Angel, released the following year & starring Pabst’s second choice for the role of Lulu, Marlene Dietrich. But with it, the film approaches female sexuality from a perspective akin to abstract horror: making an object of the unknown, and keep it unknowable while representing it objectively. Since Lovecraftian & Miltonic abstraction aren’t influences available to early German cinema, Goethean science fills the gap. (The title of the first of Wedekind’s Lulu plays, Erdgeist, “Earth Spirit,” comes from Goethe’s Faust, Part 1 & is probably the impetus for so many critics describing Lulu’s character as elemental.) Abstraction does not keep Lulu an unknown object so much as flux does, in the sense that Goethe distinguished natura naturans, “nature naturing,” from natura naturata, “nature natured,” or the domain of formed objects. Flux is represented through a series of limited emotions, through the prismatic construction of character, through the mosaic-in-time composition of film (Tarkovsky), and through the seriality of Lulu’s lovers. (Berg adds further serialism to all of this in the form of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique.)
    Lulu herself enters the realm of seriality when she becomes part of a very well know group with a very unique unit-being: the victims of Jack the Ripper. Again, these victims are selected, not selecting, and again, Lulu stumbles into external reality in an uncanny way. (He was never caught—why couldn’t he have gone on to murder fictional characters & so avoid detection?) More flux, too, as we see the mystery of a living body become a not living one. (The unknowableness of that, even when you see it happen, is best summed up by one of the pet owners in Gates of Heaven: “There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?”) The result for responsive viewers is horror, infatuation, self-questioning, therapy sessions, etc. Only those who are firmly outside of the anxious realm of sexual grouping, like our farmer friend, are impervious to the film’s assault on male sexual insecurity. And considering how many sheep he’s probably had sex with—today alone—he probably slept through the film.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I saw your comment last night, saw phrases like “exterior-interior,” and just shook my head, put it off to the morning, remembering all my losing attempts to read Nancy and Lacan and Derrida in college, the mind-bending language, the hyphens. Looked at your comment again this morning, though (had to read it twice), and mostly I wanna commend your coherence. Such a complicated thought and you communicate it with what I THINK is total clarity (there’s a chance I’ve misunderstood). Also the writing: the fact that you seem to’ve written this in a day or two — a super verbose and insightful response to a simple essay that took me four drafts and a couple months. So thank you, first, for taking the time to comment, and for doing it so eloquently, but also — on a side note — thanks for not taking the standard comment-section approach of just going for the jugular about my naivete or whatever.

      This is a fascinating idea, that the reason guys are so daunted by women’s partners is because it makes us just another unit in a group, an object of some other person’s selection (is that the spirit of what you’re saying?). Amazed, too, by how you tied that in with the farmer joke. The farmer’s contentedness.

      I didn’t know Lulu is an ongoing character that various artists play with. The Blue Angel is coming up on the list next week and, now that you mention it, I can totally see how Dietrich’s character is supposed to be another interpretation of the Lulu here.

      Really flattered by the amount of consideration you put into this, thank you — for that and the ideas.


  • I showed my wife the picture of Louise Brooks and her reaction was that this could be today. Think to have created a character and look so iconic it is relevant 90 years later.
    Adolecent insecurity is nothing new. Half the teenage movies coming out of Hollywood are devoted to this theme. We have all been there. Some never leave it behind. The novelty of this film is that it was so blunt about it.


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