Friday, November 5, 2010

G. W. Pabst | Die Buchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box) and Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera)


by Douglas Messerli

G. W. Pabst and Ladislaus Vajda (writers), based on plays by Frank Wedekind, G. W. Pabst (director) Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box) / 1929

Loosely based on Frank Wedekind's two plays Erdgeist (1985) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904), Pandora's Box, directed by Austrian G. W. Pabst, is perhaps one of the greatest films of the Weimar Republic.

Watching the movie the other day, I could easily see why composer Alban Berg was attracted to the same Wedekind plays as the source to his opera, Lulu. For Pabst's film, despite its silence, is basically a visual opera, as it counts down the numerous acts in Lulu's fall.

In the first act, Lulu, formerly living as a woman of the streets, is currently having an affair with the respectable newspaper publisher, Dr. Ludwig Schön; and as we encounter her, she is beautifully caged in Schön's lovely apartment. But her former pimp Schigolch (who she first describes as a former patron and later as her father), visits her in this paradisiacal world, insisting that he has better plans for her, suggesting that through his friend Rodrigo Quest, she perform on the stage, making her great beauty known to the world.

Schön returns home, and she is forced to hide Schigolch on the balcony. The publisher is clearly distressed, proclaiming that he is to be married and that must give up his mistress. She attempts to both distract him and allay any such decision, but he soon discovers Schigolch, and becomes in more determined to end his affair. Lulu insists, foretelling events of the plot, "You'll have to kill me to get rid me."

Meanwhile, Schön's son, Alwa—secretly in love with Lulu himself—is planning to produce a musical, and discusses the costumes with his designer, Countess Anna Geschwitz. As Lulu enters the room, she takes up one of the designs and insists that Gerschwitz must design such a dress for her as well. Alwa becomes determined to cast her in his show, and his father agrees to finance her, realizing it may be a perfect way to get her off his hands.

The long scene of the performance, filmed from backstage, as cast, workers, sets, and props jostle and push against the visiting Schön and his intended wife, Charlotte, is one of the most brilliant scenes of the movie. Like a Boulevard farce, the entire world seems to be in constant motion—until Lulu seeing Charlotte with her former lover, refuses to go on. The dance begins without her, as one by one, the director, Alwa, the choreographer and others attempt to change her mind and make her realize her responsibility, all to no avail. Finally Schön himself is asked to help. Perceiving her intractability, he takes her into a small room to force her into agreement. She remains resistant until he finally takes her in his arms to kiss her, the very moment Charlotte, having been searching the stage area for him, opens the door. Schön has now been trapped into a marriage with Lulu, a woman he has warned his son "to beware of." "Now I'll marry Lulu. It will be the death of me."

At the wedding ceremony in the Schön house, we encounter the publisher's wealthy friends along with Lulu's derelict "father," Schigolch, others of his friends, and the Countess, who clearly is a lesbian who has equally been charmed by Lulu, and with whom beauty dances the first dance.

While family friends stand about the living room, drinks in hand, Schigolch and the entire kitchen staff appear to be drunk. Schigolch determines to cover Lulu's wedding bed with roses. Alwa, meanwhile, takes his father aside, announcing that he is leaving "for a long time."

As Lulu goes off to bed, beckoning Schön to join her, she discovers Schigolch and attempts to send him away; he refuses, pulling her down onto his lap. Schön enters, outraged again at Schigloch's appearance in his house, and orders him out, the party guests witnessing the event in shock. Taking up a gun, Schön reenters the bedroom, insisting that Lulu commit suicide so that he get her out of his life. Forcing her to embrace the gun, he attempts to make her shoot, but when the gun goes off, it enters his own body. As Alwa returns for one goodbye to Lulu, his father falls to the floor, blood dripping from his mouth.

In the courtroom scene following, the prosecution describes Lulu as Pandora, in Greek mythology "the first woman," who opened a jar the gods had given her, releasing all the evils of the world before she closed it, leaving behind only "Hope." Attempting to use her allure to free herself from the charges, Lulu is a strange mix of a mysterious woman in funeral attire and a alluring call girl. But, as Louise Brooks plays Lulu, it is her eyes that seem to subjugate all men, while here she is forced for propriety's sake to hide them behind her veil. The jury finds her guilty of manslaughter. Schigolch and his friends, however, swam into the courtroom, surrounding Lulu and sweeping her up into escape.

Lulu has no place to go but to Schön's. Strangely, she seems incapable of understanding her possible fate, and she quickly glances at the newest fashion magazines, imagining herself dressed like the models. Alwa enters, however, convincing her of the dangers, and takes her away by train, out of the country. As they prepare to leave the train, however, she is spotted by the Marquis Casti-Piani, who threatens Alwa with the police unless he pays. Alwa has no choice.
Casti-Piani suggests they join him, for their protection, on a gambling boat. Once there, Alwa begins to gamble heavily, losing any money they may have previously had. Rodrigo Quest, in search of money himself, demands Lulu pay him. Casti-Piani, attempts to sell her to an Egyptian. As Lulu declares "MONEY! All they want is money!"

Desperate, Lulu pleads for money from the Countess so that her husband can continue gambling, as Schigolch shows him how to play "when you're sure to win." Caught cheating, Alwa, along with Lulu and Schigolch escape.

As the film comes to a close, we witness them in complete destitution in their London hovel. Alwa, half frozen, lies in bed, while Lulu attempts to cut a loaf of stale bread. Even a knife won't break it open, and the taste is unbearable. Only the seemingly unflappable Schigolch seems likely to survive; he has somehow been able to come up with a bottle of liquor. As Alwa declares, "It's strange how you can get booze on credit but not bread."

Without food or warmth, Lulu begins to makeup her face. She has clearly been forced to return to the streets. Her only commodity in the male-driven world she inhabits is her body.
On the street she discovers a handsome-looking man, and pulls him toward her, just as Alwa and Schigolch abandon the room, the later declaring that he could enjoy just one more plum pudding before he dies.

The girl's pick-up reports that he has no money, but Lulu offers herself to him despite that fact, luring him up the staircase to her room. In a brilliant shot from behind, we witness Lulu drawing him up the steps as he holds a knife behind his back. Her alluring look and kindness forces him to drop the knife. The audiences now divines that he is the renowned Jack the Ripper, of which a street poster has warned.

Below, on the street we see Alwa in anguish (is his suffering for his own failure to provide for her and for the fact that she is having sex with another man?). Schigolch sits in a nearby pub; his pudding before him.

As the murderer enters Lulu's room, he spots the knife that would not cut the bread, and as Lulu pulls him to the bed, he takes it up. Holding a piece of mistletoe over her head, he raises the knife, which, we are certain, will easily cut through human flesh.

Alwa walks off, apparently determined to leave his wife.
One might see this clearly theatrical and melodramatic work as simply another Naturalistic work, or simply a Theodor Dreiser-like story about a doomed woman were it not for the stunning acting of Louise Brooks. Her face, with its large eyes, long nose, and delicate lips—all enwrapped in her deeply black bangs—seems in constant motion in every frame of the film, shifting from a look of girlish wonderment, to vampire-like flirtation, and impish delight. Brooks' Lulu, moreover, is less of a siren than a charming plaything, an innocent who nonetheless understands the force she has over others, and uses it to her advantage. Her body, as I suggest above, is the only thing that permits her survival, and yet is also what destroys her in the end. As Pabst presents her, Lulu is sexuality itself, a container of energy that has no other end than to burn itself up. In the choice between enduring sustenance (bread) and temporal phallic excitement (the knife), Lulu inevitably chooses the latter. But then, she has had no other choice; to put it somewhat coarsely, she has been taught that to eat she has to fuck.

Los Angeles, August 10, 2009

by Douglas Messerli

Béla Balázs, Léo Lania, and Ladislaus Vajda (writers), based on a musical drama by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, Kurt Weill (music and lyrics), G. W. Pabst (director) Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) / 1931

Only that man survives
Who’s able to forget.
—Kurt Weill

G. W. Pabst’s expressionistic production of Brecht’s and Weill’s Threepenny Opera has many failings, and perhaps for the director’s excising of most of that work’s original songs, he deserved to be sued, as he was, by its creators; however, they lost the suit. Although the film contains a fair amount of dialogue and reproduces several of Weill’s noted songs, for the most part Pabst uses the tropes of silent film making, shooting many of his scenes in the melodramatic overstatement of a time before the “talkies.” He basically presents the songs, moreover, as dramatic commentary by the musical narrator.

Nonetheless, Pabst’s carefully framed sequences do capture the overall sense of the Brecht-Weill original, and the excellent performances by Carola Neher (as Polly), Rudolf Forster (as Mackie Messer) and Lotte Lenya (in her signature role of Jenny) redeem his rhetorical approach. In a sense, of course, the theatrical conventions used by Pabst recreate some of the Verfremdungseffekt (the alienating effects) of Brecht’s original.

For the first half of the musical, we go along with the suave manners of the anti-hero as the narrator sings of Mackie’s seemingly coincidental (and apparently unproveable) involvement in a series of robberies, murders, and sexual escapades. His clumsy wooing of Polly as he sweeps her into an underground bar were he intimidatingly stares down two men, a Laurel and Hardy-like pair who we later discover are his own henchmen, in order to take over their table, demonstrates his true temperament. The important thing in these scenes is that Polly appears to be a complete innocent about to become prey to Mackie’s machinations.

The hilarious preparations for the suddenly announced wedding between the two, including the arrest, soon after, of one of the gang members while carrying a wedding present of a stolen grandfather clock, ultimately reveals Mackie’s close friendship with the Chief of Police, Tiger-Brown.

No sooner has the viewer recovered from that revelation than the script lets us know that the innocent seeming Polly is the daughter of “the poorest of the poor,” the wealthy Beggar King. Suddenly Polly is wise to all of Mackie’s doings, asking outright: “Is all of this stolen, Mackie?”
Polly’s powerful explanation of why she has married Mackie is one of the high points of Pabst’s production:

You must be cold and heartless as you know
Or else all sort of things happen
You must say no.

But because Mackie has not offered any of the nice things a young lady in her position might expect, because he has been so crude and clumsy in his attempts at romance, she admits she had no choice this time ‘round, but to say yes: “You can’t be cold and heartless now!”

Discovering that his daughter has run away with Mackie, the Beggar King Peachum demands that Tiger-Brown bring him to justice, and when the Police Chief wavers, he threatens to interfere with the Queen’s coronation by organizing a staged protest by the beggars, who marching toward the Queen will be somewhat impervious from violent threats—after all, what will it say of the Royal family if the police heartlessly shoot down these poverty-stricken citizens as they attempt to “pay homage” to the Queen.

Hearing of her father’s intentions, Polly convinces Mackie that he must escape. And he, in turn, hands over the operation of his underworld activities to his wife. Returning to his prostitute friends, Mackie is betrayed by Jennie and, after several attempts at escape, is arrested. One of the best moments of this film is Mackie’s sudden appearance upon the brothel’s rooftop minutes before we observe his arms and hands maneuvering along the building’s drainpipe.

While Peachum plans his protests, Polly takes the gang’s ill gotten money and purchases a bank. Dressed now as bankers at a board meeting, Polly and the former gang members clearly demonstrate Brecht’s theorem that there is little difference between robbing a bank and controlling other’s money.

When Peachum’s wife announces that Polly and Mackie will be attending the coronation, sitting in the stands near where the Beggar King’s minions will attempt to interrupt the event, Peachum runs off to stop the march. Pabst’s brilliant presentation of their slow robot-like forward advance makes clear that Peachum has unleashed a monster in riling up the masses!

The Queen’s absolute terror in facing her people, moreover, explains everything, particularly the survival of those who can forget. In Pabst’s handling nearly all the action takes place while the screen goes dark, reiterating Weill’s observation: “Some men live in darkness, while others stand in light.”

At film’s end, Peachum also willfully forgets, joining forces with his banker-daughter and Mack the Knife. Together they will rule the world, the wealthy and the poor alike.

Los Angeles, August 6, 2009
Both essays reprinted from Nth Position [England] (May 2009).
Copyright (c) 2009 International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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