It’s no secret that silent films aren’t exactly in vogue right now. They’re considered relics, if they’re considered at all. Is it the overacting and garish makeup? Maybe, but most likely it’s that whole “silent” thing. As accustomed as we are to continuous noise, the idea of spending two hours in almost total silence can seem boring if not downright intimidating. It’s a monumental mistake, however, to ignore those early films simply because Transformers has more explosions or because actors like Daniel Day-Lewis seem to so naturally become their characters. Silent movies can still speak to us today if we’re willing to listen. They can move us, make us think and remind us of what it means to be human. In other words, they can still be everything a great movie should be, despite their perceived deficiency.
Take, for example Pandora’s Box, by German director G.W. Pabst. Made in 1929, it stars American actress Louise Brooks as the movie’s heroine, Lulu. Carefree to a fault, Lulu embodies the modern sense of entitlement we see on so many of today’s reality TV shows. She’s selfish, amoral and will manipulate others to get what she wants. Trouble follows her wherever she goes, and it’s usually her admirers who are stuck with the bill.
The story begins when Lulu’s lover, the respectable newspaper editor Dr. Schön, announces his engagement to his equally respectable girlfriend. Upset that she’ll be left high and dry, Lulu demands that he marry her instead and throws a tantrum until he relents. Sadly, their time together is short-lived as Dr. Schön’s fear that Lulu would ultimately be the death of him comes true. A moment of jealousy on their wedding night leads to an argument, a scuffle and a fatal gunshot wound. Whether Lulu acts in self-defense when she kills Dr. Schön is debatable, but she ends up in court all the same and it’s only because of her devoted followers that she’s able to escape from the law. She flees Germany, first for France and then London, accompanied by Alwa, the adoring son of Dr. Schön, and the elderly Shigolch, who is either Lulu’s father or her former pimp (or worse, both).
It’s in London on a cold Christmas night that Lulu meets her fate. Penniless and starving, she has resorted to prostitution to support herself and her two fellow travelers. But on this night, the man she happens to bring back to her drafty flat is none other than Jack the Ripper. In a scene that is haunting both for its tenderness and lack of melodrama, the Ripper murders Lulu before making a quick escape and vanishing into the fog. The heartbroken Alwa, who has been waiting outside, watches him leave and, unaware that his love is now dead, joins a passing Salvation Army parade, presumably never to return.
It’s this last image, of Alwa walking away from his old life, that’s most significant as it speaks to the film’s power to reveal truth despite being silent. A contrast is created between the way Lulu lived and the way God would have us live. As the screen fades to black, an orchestral arrangement of “Angels from the Realms of Glory” plays, the chorus of which goes, Come and worship, come and worship/ Worship Christ, the newborn King. The music’s grand, triumphant notes signify an invitation from beyond to turn toward grace. Because the lyrics aren’t actually sung, the moment is heightened. Had a choir been included on the soundtrack, the ending might have felt preachy. Instead, using a famous hymn but leaving out the lyrics reinforces the Bible’s words about a “still small voice.” The viewer, if he or she is familiar with the song, hears the words internally and can appreciate the scene in a way others might not. It’s a moment similar to the ending of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, when the troubled Claudia looks into the camera and smiles, in effect breaking the fourth wall and telling us that she’s finally willing to accept another person’s love. The ending in Pandora’s Box works just like this. By hearing the lyrics internally, the fourth wall is obliterated and the invitation to come and worship is extended to us as well as to Alwa.
The critic Charles Taylor, in his essay for The A List: 100 Essential Films, writes, “Pandora’s Box is not so much a reversal of conventional morality as it is another world in which convention and morality do not exist.” He’s only partly right. While Lulu and others behave as though this were true, Alwa’s decision to change his life implies that something objective stands beyond us, beckoning to those who are crushed and weary, inviting them to find rest. It’s a timeless, urgent message, and it’s part of why Pandora’s Box, as silent as it may be, speaks louder than most contemporary movies ever will.