Based on two Frank Wedekind plays, GW Pabst's Pandora's Box remains one of European silent cinema's crowning achievements, nearly 80 years after its initial release. A tragic portrait of sexual obsession, the American actress Louise Brooks provided a genuinely iconic performance as the prostitute Lulu, a femme fatale who unleashes uncontrollable desires in the men and women she encounters. She was just 22, and beat Marlene Dietrich to the role.
Wederkind described Lulu as "the personification of a primitive sexuality who inspires evil anyware". Everywhere she moves, Lulu triggers chaos, both physical and emotional, whether she's at a theatrical rehearsal, in court or on a gambling ship. Supposedly 'respectable' males such as the newspaper editor Schon, his son Alwa and the strongman Rodrigo try to monopolise her attention, only to end up self-destructing. The same fate awaits Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), arguably mainstream cinema's first ever lesbian character.
Pandora's Box is a richly atmospheric work, and Pabst is equally at home in Berlin high society or in London's impoverished East End, where Lulu encounters Jack the Ripper. It remains a strikingly bleak vision of human relationships: religion here, in the form of the Salvation Army, provides scant spiritual consolation, and Lulu herself, despite an act of touching generosity, is brutally punished for daring to challenge the patriarchal order.
All of December's NFT screenings of Pandora's Box will be accompanied by a live piano score.