This is the first article in the “Reflections on Noir” series in which I will post brief comparisons, analyses, and commentaries on film noir.
Pandora’s Box (1929) is a silent German melodrama from the interwar Weimar period of German cinema. It is often regarded as a precursor to the noir genre which would reach its full flowering in the United States in the 1940s. In fact, when the Nazis gained power in Germany, a number of German directors fled to the United States where they were embraced by Hollywood. These filmmakers brought along a unique, stylized and shadowy aesthetic called German Expressionism which would ultimately become synonymous with the noir genre. They were also interested in darker themes, such as murder and the dangers of female sexuality, which would appear again and again the figure of the femme fatale or “deadly woman”.
I think that an interesting comparison could be made between the female protagonist Lulu in Pandora’s Box (1929) and the character Cathy in Out of the Past (1947), an example of film noir at its artistic peak. Cathy seems to be the stereotypical “femme fatale”—she is beautiful, violent, murderous, devious, deceptive, and maybe even evil. In fact, she directly and intentionally causes three out of six deaths in the film (Jeff, Whit, and Fisher). In addition, she wields her sexuality like a weapon and uses it to gain power over men. Furthermore, Cathy is a strong, active force in the plot—her robbery and attempted murder of Whit initiates a chain of events that ultimately leads to the deaths of all of the main characters. In addition, the murders that she commits result in major plot shifts such as when Jeff is framed for Cathy’s murder of Fisher. Clearly, she is ruthless and willing to go to any lengths to protect herself.
Lulu has some characteristics of the femme fatale archetype, but she lacks certain important traits that can be found in Cathy. Like the typical femme fatale, Lulu is beautiful, sensuous, and leaves destruction in her wake. However, unlike Cathy, Lulu is not intentionally murderous –she accidently kills Dr. Shoen when he shoves a pistol into her hand. Instead, she causes suffering and death indirectly through her promiscuousness, uncontrollable sexuality, and disregard for the consequences of her actions. Unlike Cathy, who is trying to escape her past (she committed murder), Lulu is absolutely carefree and only lives in the present. In addition, although she is the central character of the film, she does not appear to have much agency—events and people seem to act upon her. For example, Lulu is often caught at the exact moment that she is kissing another man. In one instance, Shoen’s fiancée happens to open the door when Shoen and Lulu are kissing—thereby forcing Shoen to marry Lulu in order to avoid more of a scandal. In another instance, Shoen catches Lulu with her father and then catches her caressing Alwa’s head, triggering a murderous rage that ultimately leads to his accidental death. These coincidences are extremely common throughout the film and serve to reinforce Lulu’s passive relationship to the plot. In addition, Lulu’s lack of agency is symbolized by the recurring image of men violently grabbing her arm when they want something from her.
On one hand, Lulu’s similarities to the femme fatales of film noir could serve as evidence to support the idea that noir as a “genre” or style was influenced heavily by German Weimar cinema. However, the significant differences between Lulu and Cathy (who may represent the femme fatale archetype) open up an important space for doubt. The theme of the “fallen woman” whose insatiable sexuality leads to the death and suffering of others is an old concept that can be found in a lot of literature and film and is not exclusive to Weimar cinema. This may undermine the claim that Lulu (and perhaps other heroines of Weimar cinema) may be a precursor to the femme fatales of the film noir era.
Rotten Tomatoes: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/pandoras_box/
Next Article: Reflections on Noir #2: Gun Crazy (1950)