The Story Behind ‘Pandora’s Box,’ Quentin Tarantino’s Favorite Silent Film

According to QT, it’s the 7th greatest film ever made

Given Quentin Tarantino’s love of snappy repartee, it might come as a surprise that he’s a fan of silent films. But he is. In fact, director G. W. Pabst’s German Expressionist silent film “Pandora’s Box”(1929) sits at number seven on the Cinema Speculation author’s list of the 11 greatest films ever made. A pristine, glistening, silvery print of the film is now available on Youtube.

Pandora’s Box tells the story of Lulu, a sultry young dancer in Berlin beguiling and besotting all and sundry in a dark, decadent and foreboding “Cabaret”-era Weimar Germany. Lulu, manipulator and victim of the male gaze, careless in a Tom and Daisy Buchanan sort of way, is played by a kindred spirit. Pabst, in a stroke of genius, cast the rebellious young American actress Louise Brooks for the part. The effervescent Brooks, flapper film idol and popularizer of the bob” hair helmet arrived in Berlin fresh from being blackballed by the American film industry.

The film opens with the young Lulu, having risen from street waif practicing her tinker’s shuffle in “cheap cafes” to her present comfortable life in a glorious art-deco apartment. This abode, provided by her latest benefactor, houses the sort of fabulous and odd art, including a huge portrait of Lulu made up as a commedia dell’arte Pierrot and a small cartoonish fragile porcelain lamb that makes German Expressionism such a visible symbols-rich feast. Hauntingly, also there, in background shots of her second patron’s apartment, is a menorah.

The action begins as Lulu’s old milieu in the demimonde returns to clash with the respectable world of her current benefactor, middle-aged publisher, Herr Schon. Complicating matters for Schon’s relationship with Lulu is Schon’s engagement to the daughter of Germany’s Secretary of State. The tightly wound, monocled and meticulous Schon can control everything but his lust for Lulu.

That’s just the problem. Everybody loves Lulu and unfortunately for Lulu, in an ultimately fatal, wildly indiscriminate fashion she loves everyone else.

At one point Lulu confesses to Alwa, Schon’s budding impresario, Harry Styles-lookalike son, that Alwa is the only one who doesn’t want “something” from her. He does. As does Augusta, the lesbian countess dabbling in costume design. The countess is one of the first lesbian characters to ever appear in film and she may well be the one decent character in the movie.

Eager to hang on to the best of both worlds a distraught Schon has Lulu star in one of his son’s Ziegfeld Follies-like stage spectaculars. In a frantic pivotal scene Pabst masterfully depicts the ordered chaos back stage at the spectacle’s premiere. Pabst’s cameras delight in the profusion of dancing girls, Roman soldiers, tuxedoed and be-gowned Black performers, costumes and props all sinuously enmeshed in a controlled balletic confusion. It all culminates in one of the most powerful scenes of “bad girl” seduction of “good man” and  bad girl’s ensuing triumph over “good girl” in cinematic history.

Learning that Schon’s high-born fiancee is at the theater, Lulu refuses mid-performance to return to the stage. Lulu will “dance for the world but not that woman.” Schon searches out Lulu to coax her back on stage. Their increasingly agitated backstage confrontation moves into the relative privacy of a storeroom. The smirk on Lulu’s face as she calmly rises from the floor of that storeroom where she has just seduced her benefactor and been discovered in door-burst-open flagrante by his own fiancee and Schon’s son is one for the ages.

Nonplussed by the glare of the wide-eyed crowd encompassing the dissolute scene, Lulu calmly reorders her costume, strides majestically past the crestfallen good girl fiancée and retakes the stage.

A defeated and resigned Schon, left leaning for support on the doorway of the storeroom, tells his still-stunned son that now there is nothing for him to do but marry Lulu.

Predictably the ensuing high-toned marriage celebration devolves into disaster. Lulu’s rare redeeming quality, an almost inexplicable loyalty to her “first patron” and declared “father”, Shigolch, a smaller less attractive version of Oliver Twists Fagin, serves as the catalyst for the horror that follows. A drunken Shigolch, played by a mesmerizing Carl Goetz, emerges from his cramped table hidden behind a curtain among the help. Egged on by the increasingly inebriated serving staff, Shigolch undertakes an ill-fated attempt, accompanied by his equally drunken henchman, to strew stolen flowers on Lulu’s bridal bed.

Schon discovers the unwelcome pair with Lulu. A pistol is pulled from a drawer and the evening ends in tragic shabby disarray. The downward spiral of the characters continues. One horrifying revelation follows another. Lulu flees Berlin with Schon’s son and her “father”. The trio descend from one unwholesome environment to another even more degrading one until, via a pencil-mustachioed Marquis moonlighting as a white slaver, they end up in a decrepit wind-blown London garret. There, at rock bottom, the three meet their Germanic folklore-inspired fates in a grim Dickensian Christmastime environment peopled by the elderly poor, the Salvation Army carting around a forlorn Charlie Brownish Christmas tree, and a depression-era Jack the Ripper.

The movie, released by Jewish producer Heinrech Neibenzahl’s legendary Nero Films studio, was reedited in many international markets to meet censor’s demands. It met with negative or mostly middling reviews but did well with audiences.

After making another classic film with Brooks, Diary of a Lost Girl, Pabst counseled the actress not to return to America where her rebellious nature would continue to cost her. Ignoring Pabst’s wise warning, Brooks returned to Los Angeles and promptly further alienated Hollywood’s executive class. She refused to do voice work for an older film of hers converting to sound and declined a film offer when it got in the way of a fling.

Hollywood had enough. Brooks never returned to the star status she earlier held. Falling back on skills honed in her days as a Ziegfeld’s showgirl, Brooks turned to performing in nightclubs. Ultimately, however, she just exchanged being destitute in Los Angeles with being destitute in New York. Saddled with a serious drinking problem the only significant income she could earn was as an escort working her way through a steadily declining quality of clientele. Legendary Media titan William S. Paley, yet another “patron,” provided a small stipend for life that reportedly more than once kept her from suicide.

Brooks’s youth faded but her fierce intelligence remained. Happily, her fate did not completely parallel that of the tragic Lulu. The unrepentant Brooks hung on till she, much to her amusement, experienced a renaissance in the 1950s that would put her life on an entirely different track as an insightful writer on cinema and Hollywood history. Her reflections on the phenomenon of “sexual hate”, a frustrated combination of desire and inability to realize that desire, directed towards the beautiful remain insightful.

In 1982 Brooks would author the popular and literate memoir Lulu in Hollywood that no less an authority than Roger Ebert called “indispensable”.

Lulu would smile.

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Samuel Porteous

Samuel Porteous is a Shanghai/Hong Kong-based artist/author and founder of Drowsy Emperor Studio represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA). His work includes visual arts, illustration, graphic novels, screenwriting and film. Sam has published in the WSJ, Financial Times, SCMP, Fortune China, the Globe and Mail, National Post and Hong Kong Standard among others. He is also the author of "Ching Ling Foo: America's First Chinese Superstar" a biography of the late polymath magician come diplomat and author/illustrator of the graphic novel series Constable Khang's Mysteries of Old Shanghai.

7 thoughts on “The Story Behind ‘Pandora’s Box,’ Quentin Tarantino’s Favorite Silent Film

  • February 16, 2023 at 3:53 pm

    Thanks for the article on “Pandora’s Box,” one of my favorite films. Louise Brooks as Lulu is indeed a force of nature, and “Pandora’s Box” is today rightly considered one of the great films of the silent era, despite the fact it was “met with negative or mostly middling reviews” upon release. I was also pleased to see your mention of Quentin Tarantino’s appreciation of “Pandora’s Box.” He certainly seems to favor the work of G.W. Pabst, as there is a visual shout-out to the director in “Inglorious Basterds.”

    One small correction. It was not wealthy publisher William Randolph Hearst who secretly supported Louise Brooks in her old age. In fact, it was William S. Paley, the founder of CBS. Brooks and Paley were romantically linked around the time that Brooks returned from Europe after working with Pabst.

    Thomas Gladysz
    Director, Louise Brooks Society

    • February 17, 2023 at 11:21 am

      From Sam Porteous:

      Hi Thomas! Sorry for the delay in responding. I am having technical difficulties. Thanks for the great comment! That “small correction” is of course correct. I carelessly blended the role William Randolph Hearst had in her life with that of Paley. Ms. Brooks was friends with William Randolpoh Hearst in her glory years and often hung out with Hearst and Marion Davies at his palatial estate San Simeon (made famous as Charles Foster Kane’s estate Xanadu in Welles’ “Citizen Kane” take on that press titan’s life). It was indeed Paley, another media titan of a later era who supported Brooks with that welcome “pension”. As to the reviews, beyond provincialism they were also likely largely the result of the savage censoring/editing the film was subject to in many markets and the reaction to Brooks’s’ naturalistic acting style, which was ahead of its time.

  • February 17, 2023 at 12:02 pm

    Another small correction: I don’t think one could say Louise Brooks was friends with William Randolph Hearst. That’s a stretch. Rather, she was friends with Marion Davies, and Marion Davies’ niece, Pepi Lederer. In fact, there is a chapter in Brooks’ “Lulu in Hollywood” titled “Marion Davies Niece” in which the silent film star recounted memories of San Simeon.

    Brooks and Davies were close, at least for a short while. Davies may have even confided the meaning of “Rosebud” to Brooks. I speculate on the matter in “Mank and Lulu, and contact tracing the origins of Rosebud” on the Louise Brooks Society blog. (See

    And who is this Neal Pollock character who posted the response from Sam Porteous? Are you or are you not the same Neal Pollock who once appeared on a Booksmith author trading card? Isn’t that really your only claim to fame, besides being America’s greatest living novelist. You seem to resemble him, but one never knows.

  • February 17, 2023 at 1:14 pm

    Hi Thomas, I think I can now respond again. Thanks again for another great comment I think on this one though I will say I feel comfortable describing Hearst
    as a “friend” of Brooks – if leaning more heavily into the acquaintance and rather short term end of the spectrum rather than the BFF bosom buddy side. That however may reflect my shallow sense of the concept. I agree Marion was a better friend (even if it was for a short period) and I have read Brooks’ book where she goes into detail on the relevant intrigue surrounding the relationships of Marion, Pepi and Hearst and Brooks. I certainly would recommend both your blog and the Louise Brooks society to all those who want to learn more about the once encountered unforgettable Brooks.

    And no I am not Neal Pollack (Who but he could be?). Neal as editor and general overseer of the platform is currently graciously helping to post my responses as WordPress and I currently – apparently – have some sort of issue.

  • February 23, 2023 at 5:21 pm

    Louise Brooks may never look better then when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screens “Pandora’s Box” on May 6, 2023 at the magnificent Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California with live musical accompaniment provided by the Club Foot Orchestra & the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The print being shown is the restoration by Angela Holm and David Ferguson in a DCP from the Deutsche Kinemathek. More info at

    • February 23, 2023 at 11:42 pm

      Wow! What an event Thomas. I wish I could be there. Amazing this is all happening now.


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