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_January 2007 _

Music for an icon


Alongside Criterion, KINO’s managed to mine the silent works of European and American directors during the years that preceded and crossed into the sound era, but like their release of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Criterion frequently includes extras that compel the viewer to re-experience the film, newly armed with background and historical information, or alternate music scores to challenge one’s first impression.

For film music fans, the four commissioned scores on the label’s 2-disc set of G.W. Pabst’s 1929 classic, Pandora’s Box, are probably the most intriguing extra. Based on a melodramatic play with high-strung emotions and extreme characterizations, the famous Austrian director, already familiar with Frank Wedekind’s plays from prior theatrical stagings, found his perfect Lulu in American actress Louise Brooks, who’d just left Paramount with a hard contempt for an industry she’d only recently entered.

Under Pabst’s direction, Brooks was allowed to deliver a timeless, natural performance whose subdued qualities annoyed contemporary critics, and bristled Germans already upset with the starring role given to an American, and not local star Marlene Dietrich.

Even though Pabst reshaped Lulu into a more vulnerable creature, whose beauty and unbridled sexuality placed her in increasingly jealous relationships with men, the story is still a ridiculous mish-mash of melodrama that may not have reveled in the sleaze of an Erich von Stroheim indulgence, but involved a feminine creature stripped down to a desperate victim who’s ultimately done in by Jack the Ripper.

Or maybe not, because Pabst recognized Brooks was capable of giving Lulu powerful feminine strength within a male-dominated world, and he realized her face was an anchor that would keep us patient when things got sleazy, silly, and preposterous. Unlike the play, Lulu’s spirit triumphs as still being unblemished, and her death was a sacrifice of warmth and tenderness to a lost stranger (Mr. Ripper).

The potent mix of prostitution and searing adult behaviour are remarkable, because those elements would be quashed once the revised American Production Code came into effect five years later.

Unlike sound films –or arguably, American films by American directors – the frankness, the moral arguments, and adult behaviour were all elements any composer could draw from to craft a rich soundtrack.

So why the need for a quartet of scores?

The included 96-page book doesn’t really give us an answer, but perhaps the label felt the uniqueness of the film could live on by forcing us to reinterpret the film through differing musical approaches: a traditional orchestra score arranged from popular classic works by Gilliam Anderson in Dolby 5.1 and 2.0; a cabaret score by Dimitar Pentchev; a modernist take by veteran German composer Peer Raben; and a solo piano improve score by Stephan Oliva.

Anderson (not the X Files star) had already scored silent films such as Broken Blossoms and Nosferatu, and selected classical themes and songs popular during the Weimar era, adapted and performed by the Michigan Sinfonietta.

Pentchev, a London-based composer, used the sparse and intimate instrumentation of a vintage cabaret orchestra, and crafted a sound that gives the film a wholly different feel.

The third score (which appeared on the UK DVD from Second Sight Films Ltd., sporting the same 133 min. version) was written by Peer Raben. Best-known for his Fassbinder scores, like the epic Berlin Alexanderplatz mini-series, Raben went modernist and used a modest orchestra; while the fourth score by Oliva evokes the live improvs of a theatre musician, with the piano serving a more intimate portrait of the film’s troubled (and not particularly likeable) characters.

The distinctness if each score genuinely gives us a wholly different experience of Pandora’s Box, and we’ve selected three moments in the film to dissect the uniqueness of each score.

Whereas Armstrong’s large orchestral score begins with a traditional Overture, Main Titles, and underscore for the first scene (each passage seamlessly flowing into the next), Raben’s approach is more orchestra-jazz. Right from the opening titles, it’s clear Raben’s aim is to use modernism to convey varying levels of opposing and attracting undercurrents, which he largely restricts to discreetly performed material from woodwinds and chamber strings.

Archived a bit too quietly on the DVD (the other music tracks are a third louder, with greater dynamic range), Raben’s take is nevertheless unique, with the full force of the orchestra reserved for sudden, rapid crescendi amid long swathes of dissonant strings and woodwinds.

Pentchev’s cabaret style is definitely the most controversial, if not the riskiest of the lot, as his title music is quite cheeky, and often veers from an evocation of a twenties cabaret to a mid-sixties small orchestra-jazz combo.

For the opening scene, the flow of notes from a woody clarinet evoke Lulu’s risqué behaviour, and her offering of alcohol to the superintendent so early in the day. His slight embarrassment and obvious awareness of her alluring persona is evoked by a solo sax, which Pentchev later repeats as he leaves the apartment after Lulu’s old friend Schigolch (her first ‘customer’ from her pre-dancer, prostitute days) visits.

The musical contrasts within the lengthy scene are quite striking, as Pentchev modifies the tempo to enhance the buoyant mood as Schigolch and Lulu reminisce, while the aforementioned sax solo now underscores the landlord’s disapproval, and perhaps a trickle of indiscreet jealousy towards Schigolch, a rival who steals Lulu’s attention from the superintendent.

Unlike Raben’s modern and dark take on her catching-up conversation with Schigolch, Pentchev goes for a humour and warmth, and underscores Lulu’s short dance with a piano and string bass jig. Like the other composers, Pentchev doesn’t include a harmonica, and avoids transgressing into source music when Schigolch briefly plays a tune to an excited Lulu.

Oliva’s approach, right from the Main Titles, is intimacy, tragedy, and introspection, which he elegantly renders via solo piano. His improvisations lightly evoke the energy of an old-time organ grinder, as the composer also uses gaps of silence for specific dramatic punctuations.

Oliva does feature fragments of melody – first unraveled in Spartan form when Lulu offers the superintendent a drink – but switches to impressionistic rhythmic improvs on the bass keys when Schigolch arrives.

Unlike Pentchev, the piano accompaniment for the landlord’s solemn departure lacks any humour, and further hints at the latent jealousy that’s a key flaw in all of the men who fall under Lulu’s spell. Oliva then shifts back and forth between his melodic fragments and the bass rhythms during Lulu and Schigolch’s conversation, and interestingly scores her brief dance with a dissonant, harmonically canted passage that nicely encapsulates Lulu’s sudden gust of energy, and the confusion that follows when it dissipates as she’s unable to recall any subsequent choreography (which angers Schigolch, clearly wanting a private revisitation of his perfectionalized memory).

The film’s major plot point and our second scene analysis is the murder of her lover, whom she ultimately marries, but loses when he becomes jealous of her affection towards his son Alwa, and is shot after trying to force Lulu to commit suicide. (Herein the story begins to go nutty.)

Oliva’s plays melodic snippets on piano as Lulu tries on her new pearl necklace, and then switches to hard bass hits as her jealous husband approaches and forces a gun into her hand. After two shots hit the husband during the struggle, Oliva creates a death pall using a 1-2 couplet, and allows it to soften and dissipate as he dies in the arms of Alwa.

Armstrong chooses to integrate arranged music from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet (which reappears following Lulu’s final scene), although the rapturous theme doesn’t really appear in full until after the shooting, but in a more scaled-back arrangement. Her version goes into a fascinating dirge, signaling his inevitable demise, and reintroduces warm, melodic chords when he collapses in front of a strangely non-emotive Lulu. (A peculiar smirk crisscrosses her visage, but Armstrong doesn’t acknowledge it in her score.)

Pentchev begins the scene on a light and fluffy ambiance, but shifts to a more minimal, orchestral style during the gun battle. The flute, piano, and brushes on drums convey a weirdly comical tone, and colour (or to some, discolour) the husband’s death with a strong undercurrent of bathos – perhaps an indication that Pentchev wanted to remind us of the film’s full-throttle shift into heightened melodrama, which continues with a trial, and Lulu’s flight from justice thereafter to France, and later England.

Raben’s approach is to use intertwined woodwinds when the husband appears as Lulu tries on her pearls, and he colours a slow, dramatic buildup to the murder with a trumpet just as the shimmering gun is forced into her hand. A sudden rise of sharp brass and percussion accompany their battle, with silence buffering an otherwise low-key, impressionistic dirge for his slow death.

The third and final scene for our comparison is the brief intro into Act 8, where a stranger (later to be revealed as Jack the Ripper) wanders through the dank, foggy alleys and streets of London. We know the locale because Armstrong’s score makes use of recognizable English Christmas carols, and continues as the solemn man approaches a group patterned after the Salvation Army, who hands out warm drinks to weary passersby.

Pentchev’s take is a string bass pulse, and descending piano chords that nicely encapsulate the man’s loneliness as he watches families and pub revelers through frosty windows on Christmas Eve. Perhaps inspired by Trevor Jones’ score to Angel Heart, Pentchev layers the ongoing pulse with the distant, almost subliminal improvs from a sax and sparse pairings of woodwinds, which form a contrast as the loner is approached by a sympathetic woman. When he ultimately walks away, Pentchev accents his solo trek with a solo violin, and the continued pulse infers his nefarious drive towards murder.

Raben’s approach begins with a solo trumpet and his familiar dissonant strings, and continues as the man approaches the troupe. Raben adds a fresh dirge, and soft woodwinds underscore a series of painful close-ups between the woman and the man – two figures who clearly recognize some respective inner turmoil.

The solo piano of Oliva’s music also adds a deeper layer of intimacy to the scene, although he reintegrates some of the melodic bits and bass rhythms from the film’s opening scene. Alternating bass and treble couplets emphasize the pair’s sadness, and they provide another effective comment on the solemnitude that exists between the dangerous street walker, and the sympathetic aid worker.

Unlike the Armstrong score, the other three are in Dolby 2.0 stereo, but still offer strong interpretations of the film’s problem-prone characters.

Few DVD releases have given viewers the chance to experience a film with dual soundtracks (MGM/UA’s recent Battle of Britain special edition and Columbia’s Major Dundee come to mind), and although these scores were specially commissioned for this unique Criterion release, the multi-score option certainly establishes a precedent for a silent film: in some cases, there may exist a new score (as for a DVD release), a recently commissioned score (as done for Turner Classic Movies TV airing), and the original guidelines for a film’s original theatrical engagement, which, if assembled for a singular DVD, would provide a similar opportunity to experience a film through different musical styles.

The historical significance of Pandora’s Box, coupled with the magnetic and enduring sexuality of Louise Brooks, make the film a special case for the multiple scores, but Criterion’s stellar DVD release proves silent films deserve as much attention as a recent blockbuster. Turner Classic Movies is equally unique in offering silent as high-profile scoring assignments to winners of the annual TCM Young Film Composers Competition, but not all of the winners have been lucky to see their results on home video.

Moreover, Criterion’s experiment is wholly different than pairing a rejected and replacement score side-by-side: none of the efforts are wrong, bad, or inappropriate, and the composers should be proud of their contributions towards giving an old film multiple interpretations for a new generation of Pandora fans.


Mark R. Hasan (2007)

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