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San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented "Pandora’s Box" with live orchestral accompaniment

 Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office
Audrey Kupferberg
Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office

Oh, to have been in Northern California earlier this month when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented the 1929 silent film masterpiece Pandora’s Box with live musical accompaniment by the Club Foot Orchestra and San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The event took place at the Paramount Theater in Oakland on May 6.

This is no ordinary film. To my mind, it is in the top 100 films ever produced. It was directed by the G.W. Pabst, whose work in Germany from 1925-1931 is extraordinary, and it stars a coterie of Germany’s finest film and stage artists. This is a film that students of film history and film production should see. All avid film viewers should see this film.

The black-and-white visuals are breathtaking. Pabst and a crew of Berlin’s talented design and technical people combine knowledge of composition with textures and expressionist lighting to create an atmosphere at times sensual and at time foreboding. The plot follows a naïve, highly sexual free spirit named Lulu through her young life. Based on the writings of Frank Wedekind, Pandora’s Box takes viewers along on Lulu’s exciting but often deplorable journey. Everyone who involves themselves with this amoral sprite winds up damaged or completely ruined.

The incomparable Louise Brooks plays Lulu. Brooks’ film career and her life in general are a series of ups and downs, a few years of artistic brilliance and dramatic downturns. The late 1920s was a banner time for Brooks, an American movie star who made such outstanding film dramas as Beggars of Life, The Canary Murder Case, Diary of a Lost Girl (another Pabst film) and Prix de Beaute in those years. Brooks’ life is well documented in biographies and an autobiography. She spent her last decades in Rochester NY under the guidance of her close friend, renowned film archivist James Card of George Eastman House.

Another legendary film archivist Henri Langlois said, “There is no Garbo. There is no Dietrich. There is only Louise Brooks!” See Pandora’s Box and know what he is talking about!

This film is a study in the power of the sensual. It was made at a time when the mainstream European moviegoer’s sense of sexual practices was pretty sophisticated. In fact, Pandora’s Box features a little-known actress named Alice Roberts in the role of Grafin Geschwitz, a lesbian who has set her hopes on a relationship with Lulu. This is one of the first serious lesbian appearances in film history.

1939 often is referred to as a golden year in Hollywood film production. 1973 is another astounding year in American cinema. For my two cents, 1929 is another awesome year, not just in American films but worldwide. The Man with a Movie Camera from Dziga Vertov, Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause with Helen Morgan, Hitchcock’s Blackmail, the Marx brothers’ first feature The Cocoanuts, E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly, and the legendary Queen Kelly by Erich von Stroheim, and Bunuel’s surreal short Un Chien Andalou, just to name a few.

If you, too, were unable to attend the Oakland screening at the Paramount, please note that Pandora’s Box is available for viewing with a choice of fine musical accompaniment from The Criterion Collection on disc and at HBO Max.

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