Lulu (Louise Brooks) is what is known as a kept woman, the mistress of wealthy editor Dr Schon (Fritz Kortner), and would love to be married to him. However, for some time now she has been liberal with her affections, and Dr Schon is not the only recipient of her attentions, so when her previous sugar daddy, Schigolch (Carl Goetz) shows up after some while away from her she is delighted to welcome him into the apartment that she lives in thanks to her rich benefactor. Schigolch has a proposition for her: take to the stage, make a little money...
The only real reason to watch Pandora's Box these days is not all those wonderful German Expressionist images courtesy of director G.W. Pabst, but to see what all the fuss was about where Louise Brooks was concerned. A former showgirl who had risen up through the ranks to make a name for herself in the previous year's Beggars of Life, she was loaned to the German studio to star here when Pabst had insisted she was the right girl for him; Marlene Dietrich was waiting in the wings to take the role of Lulu, but had to content herself with winning worldwide fame in The Blue Angel the following year, not that she had much to complain about career-wise thereafter.
Not so with Brooks, who after two electrifying performances for Pabst returned to the States where she sank into ill-deserved obscurity, mainly if she was to be believed due to her tendency to speak her mind no matter who she was with. She had a late on renaissance as a commentator on the early days of Hollywood, and a short time before her death was enjoying a resurgence of fame thanks to a salty memoir, which seeing as how around that time Pandora's Box had been restored to its proper length made film fans both appreciate what a vital presence in cinema Brooks had been, and regret her career was not managed as well as it should have been - her final film was a John Wayne B-Western.
That's Wayne before he was the superstar he became, of course. What most noted about Brooks in this, her most enduring work, was how sexual she was in her performance, particularly in light of how other movie stars of the day acted: no Mary Pickford was she. Yet she was a peculiar kind of vamp, as accompanying her undeniable allure was an innocence, as if Lulu was unaware of just how much power all those displays of physical affection she awards to the men in her life had over them, and following on how far that went to spell her doom. You can see why Brooks was embraced by the feminists: Lulu is shines out like a beacon amidst these weak-willed men who have to go to such drastic, pathetic lengths to try to tame her.
The plot, which lasts well over two hours, is all over the place, winding between morality play to torrid melodrama to backstage story to thriller to courtroom suspenser to doomed romance (gay and straight), often in the space of mere minutes. As far as Schon thinks, he may have to give his heart to Lulu but he is savvy enough to recognise she will spell his downfall - he just didn't expect it all to collapse around his ears on their wedding night. The events of that evening has her labouring under the fugitive brand for the rest of the movie, sinking ever lower into degradation as the blackmailers circle, though her sensuous spirit never dwindles, as if defying the males who would try to exploit her. Nevertheless, in a film already episodic it's that final episode which either proves a tragically fitting manner to conclude, or a frustrating triumph over Lulu at last; some have seen this as the only way she could attain redemption, but no matter how atmospherically it is presented it's difficult to feel much cheer when Jack the Ripper is involved.