A Modern Take on Silent Films

The 1929 movie adaptation of German play Pandora’s Box was met with live music in conjunction with the showing at its Jan. 26 showing at the Clinton Street Theater. For a silent film, there really wasn’t much that was silent about the experience.

Premiering at the tail-end of the silent film era, this run of Pandora’s Box was shown in 16mm. The rustic atmosphere of the Clinton Street Theater, which first opened in 1915, complimented the silent film well, as its old-timey interior is apt for the film’s period. The historic theater was relatively well attended by what looked to be at least 50 spectators ready to watch what unfolded. What resulted was a contemporary take on cinematic history.

The concept of pairing live music with silent film isn’t new—in fact, it’s a defining element of the era. When film first debuted back in 1894, the only method of including sound along with productions was to incorporate live music performances in conjunction with a film’s viewing. Guitarists, organists and orchestral ensembles generally improvised a score or learned a compilation of theatrical and classical repertory music prior to the screening.

In this instance, instead of the traditional orchestra used at the height of the silent film era, the recent screening of Pandora’s Box paired a live ambient band along with the movie as part of a more modern depiction.

The overall undertones of the film were captured well by the desert-drone of local band Abronia, whose ebb and flow went very smoothly with the storyline. With tenor sax, lap steel, bass, guitar and pedal steel among their instrumental arsenal, they made good use of the varied tools they typically employ. More cheerful notes were struck during the film’s comedic scenes, punctuated by a smattering of laughs from the audience.

Pandora’s Box follows the twisted journey of LuLu, the mistress of Dr. Ludwig Schon. When Schon decides to spurn his previously arranged marriage to instead take LuLu as his wife, he finds her in the company of two other men on their wedding night. Furious, he demands she kill herself with a pistol he hands her, not wanting to become a murderer himself. In the ensuing struggle, the pistol fires into Schon, who dies. The proceeding trial finds LuLu guilty of manslaughter, but she escapes with Schon’s son Alwa and they flee the country together. After months of living in squalor, LuLu is forced into prostitution to bring in money. Unfortunately for her, her first client ends up being Jack the Ripper.

The opening act was very lighthearted overall, and you began to get the sense that this was more of a comedy than anything else. However, things quickly turned during Acts 3 and 4, in which LuLu’s promiscuous behavior and Schon’s death both occur. Loud trumpet blasts and cymbal clashes accompanied the escape from the courtroom scene, and the finale of LuLu’s rendezvous with Jack the Ripper and Alwa’s walking away carried rather somber tones, indicating a rather unhappy ending.

Despite the movie’s ending, it seemed as though the audience left quite pleased. Combating the silence of Pandora’s Box with sonic manifestations of the film’s moods probably helped, but really it’s just entertaining to watch murderous engagements acted out wordlessly.