The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents April 2007 Return to Table of Contents
Hirschfeld, ASC
Post Focus
DVD Playback
Pandora's Box
Who's Afraid
The Double Life
ASC Close-Up
Pandora's Box (1929)
1.33:1 (Full Frame)
Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box is one of the masterpieces of the silent era, a sophisticated exploration of desire that still feels relevant in its attitudes toward eroticism and class. The film tells the story of a sexy showgirl, Lulu (Louise Brooks), whose magnetic charisma empowers and then ultimately destroys her. As the film follows Lulu from one lover to the next, power subtly shifts from one character to another, and passion eventually levels the playing field.

Ironically, this modern film has often seemed creaky due to poor presentation, particularly in truncated American prints missing key intertitles and shots. This Criterion Collection DVD offers the definitive 133-minute cut, and though the source elements exhibit some scratches and are missing a few frames, overall the transfer is a revelation. Cinematographer Gunther Krampf created a marvelous sense of detail with his lighting, and both the depth of his long shots and the clarity of his close-ups have been well preserved in this transfer. Viewers who have only seen Pandora’s Box on murky VHS tapes or jittery 16mm prints are likely to be stunned by the nuances in Krampf’s palette that are visible on this disc.

Discussions of Pandora’s Box have tended to focus on the charismatic Brooks, but she was helped in no small part by Pabst and Krampf, who framed, lit and edited her in a manner that accentuated the most powerful components of her performance. Brooks is often just a bit brighter than her co-stars, with an angelic glow that simultaneously draws the viewer’s eye to her and provides an ironic counterpoint to her status as femme fatale. Krampf began as an assistant on the Expressionist landmark Nosferatu and went on to shoot for Alfred Hitchcock in the 1940s, but his richly layered cinematography in Pandora’s Box is perhaps his finest work.

As film scholars Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Ann Doane note in their audio commentary on this disc, Lulu’s dominance in the narrative is reinforced by camera placement and compositions; she is often photographed in close-ups, a strategy that implies she exists independent of the confines that trap the men in her life. The filmmakers also regularly frame her in passageways that serve as visual indicators of her ability to transgress boundaries. Aside from these observations, Elsaesser and Doane’s narration isn’t very illuminating; they tend to overemphasize a handful of theoretical concepts, and their academic language fails to disguise that the insights are rather superficial.

The best feature of this DVD is the ability to choose from among four soundtracks: a composition in the German cabaret tradition that gives the film a jauntier atmosphere; a piano improvisation that makes it feel a bit more intimate; an orchestral piece by the late Peer Raben that underscores the complexity of the characters’ emotions; and an additional, more conventional orchestral score.

Supplements on disc two include “Looking for Lulu,” an hour-long documentary from Turner Classic Movies that provides a thorough overview of Brooks’ career; “Lulu in Berlin,” a 48-minute film made in 1984 that contains an entertaining interview with Brooks; and a new five-minute interview with “Lulu in Berlin” co-director Richard Leacock. Also featured is a new 30-minute interview with Pabst’s son Michael, who touches on his father’s technique and career but devotes a lot of time to Brooks. The problem with these supplements is that there is a great deal of overlap. The significance of Brooks’ work in Pandora’s Box is undeniable, but this package’s emphasis on her at the expense of so many other aspects of the film is a bit disappointing. Nevertheless, even if this isn’t the “definitive” edition one might expect from Criterion, the luminous new transfer of the film makes it a worthwhile purchase.

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