Weimar Berlin has a well-earned reputation for delirious decadence, and in G.W. Pabst's 1929 film, Louise Brooks epitomizes the era as Lulu, a dancer of questionable morals who, like the mythical Pandora, wreaks havoc on the lives of everyone around her. With her iconic bob (later emulated by Liza Minelli in Bob Fosse's Cabaret) and an unaffected acting style that's all too rare in silent movies, the ex-Ziegfield girl displays a curiously paradoxical combination of innocence and wickedness that puts her at the center of a whirlwind of depravity: lust, gambling, adultery, blackmail, prostitution, murder. A whole parade of lovelorn sons, stern lesbians, degenerate lowlifes and aristocratic slave traders fall to ruin over their passion for lovely Lulu.
Pandora's Box loses some of its punch in the final act. When Lulu and her entourage flee to London and Jack the Ripper appears to exact the price for Lulu's transgressions, the life literally drains out of the movie. A proper morality tale (Pandora's Box is based on two plays by Franz Wedekind) has to end in edifying punishment, but it is the outrageous depravity we're really after. A fantastically entertaining backstage sequence, in which Lulu sabotages a marriage before taking the spotlight in an over-the-top costume, is worth the price of admission alone.
Pandora's Box is showing at Film Forum in New York with live piano accompaniment from June 16 to June 29, 2006.