«Well-kept secrets come to light.»

G.W. Pabst's grandchildren are extraordinary personalities with extraordinary professions. A chance encounter with Daniel, the youngest of them, prompted Angela Christlieb to explore a rather neglected subject and find out more about Trude Pabst, wife of the famous film director. In PANDORA'S LEGACY the filmmaker has created a mosaic, interspersing Trude's letters, records of her dreams and other writings with excerpts from Pabst's films and encounters with his descendants, thus exploring the traces left by a genius in his own family history.
The introduction to PANDORA'S LEGACY features a range of audio quotes about G.W. Pabst against the backdrop of a starry sky. How did you establish contact with the universe of G.W. Pabst?
The starry sky has several interpretations in the film. On the one hand, it represents the cinematic universe of G.W. Pabst. I made contact with his universe through his grandson, Daniel Pabst. Daniel told me about him and about his grandmother Trude Pabst; he would often visit her as a child, since she lived alone after the death of her husband. Trude showed him a large number of set photos, including some from The Mistress of Atlantis. Daniel's stories immediately conjured up for me the vision of a film that I really wanted to make.  On the other hand, the star theme also stands for the universe of Trude Pabst, who experienced an epiphany in the Sahara at the sight of the starry sky and became religious.
Is it an interesting biographical approach to explore a personality by depicting his descendants, going beyond genius worship to look at the human, everyday life of a dominant artistic figure?
From the very beginning I was very interested in the question: What does a genius do with his family? And especially the question: How did Trude manage at the side of the genius? Trude was an actress when he married her, but she wasn’t allowed to act in any of his films, except for one small supporting role. If you take a close look at G.W. Pabst, one term comes up again and again: ambivalence. As a director, he created modern, strong female characters in his early films. He was able to empathize with the female psyche better than many other directors of his time. Yet he was a patriarch in his family, oppressing his wife and two sons. Trude Pabst was involved in almost all G.W. Pabst's films in various capacities. Later she wrote screenplays herself, and G.W. was very supportive. For example, she wrote the screenplay for Mysterious Shadows, which G.W. Pabst then filmed. It is the story of a woman torn between two men. What fascinated me most about Mysterious Shadows was that she was working through her own dreams, traumas and visions in it.
There are said to be thousands of loose pages recording dreams, along with countless letters. Was there a huge amount of research behind your project?
In terms of the letters, I should say that all his letters have been preserved and archived. Evidently her letters weren’t considered valuable, so there are only a few in the estate: several from around 1925, and a few from the 1940s. The rest have gone. A large number of loose sheets of paper that Daniel inherited after Trude's death have been preserved: her dream diaries and many other notes that she wrote during the course of her life. Trude was a highly intelligent woman who was interested in a wide range of issues in the fields of psychology, philosophy and astrophysics. It's a shame I couldn't use more of her notes, but it would have gone beyond the scope of the film. I found it extremely moving to read the love letters. And her dream diaries. She had something like a third eye, i.e. precognitive abilities. In her dreams, she foresaw the horrors of the Third Reich in the form of Holocaust visions. I was absolutely fascinated by her powers of perception.
This isn’t the first time you have used the technique of creating a montage effect, using archive film sequences in parallel with a contemporary level. Can you say more about this form of storytelling?
If it’s possible to talk about my individual editing technique in my films, I would call it "associative montage". In other words, I place different film levels in a new context, prompting associations. It could be compared to the concept of emergence in the natural sciences, where new structures emerge from the interplay of different elements. In PANDORA'S LEGACY, I have intertwined three narrative strands: the story of Trude and G.W. from 1925 to the 1980s, the stories of the grandchildren, and as a third level, the films of G.W. Pabst. The film excerpts are like protagonists who create new contexts. This form of montage was a major challenge. Fortunately, Michael Palm gave me very good advice as an editor and helped me a lot to find my structure. Later, Sebastian Schreiner joined us as co-editor and contributed further impulses to the editing. 
The three levels include film clips, archive material and also the footage you shot yourself. The majority of the filming you did yourself was with the grandchildren, who are very extraordinary personalities with extraordinary professions. Which places did they take you to?
We filmed in Vienna, Zurich and Berlin, among other places. And also in Sardinia, because Ben Pabst has a house there. The two siblings, Daniel and Marion, go there to visit Ben. Ben Pabst is now 75 and remembers when his grandfather was still alive. He came up with the idea of climbing a mountain, because there are huge granite stones at the top that have hollow interiors. So we climbed up the mountain with all the equipment, in the heat, through high thorn bushes – and we got lost several times. I almost wanted to turn back to save my team, but Ben insisted. And it was worth it! In the caves at the top of the mountain we were able to capture incredible images that perfectly matched the cave paintings in Mysterious Shadows, in visual terms. It is true that the grandchildren are very extraordinary personalities with extraordinary professions. That's what fascinated me so much about this family: everyone has a special passion they take very seriously, and they pursue it intently. Interestingly, there are parallels to the films of G.W. Pabst in their activities. Ben was named after the speleologist Ben Wittich from the movie Mysterious Shadows. That he himself would later become a dinosaur researcher was virtually predetermined. Marion inherited her mission from her grandmother Trude's values and became a butterfly breeder. Daniel is a musician and an artist specializing in brutalist architecture.
What kind of relationship do the members of this second generation have with their grandfather, considering one of them hardly knew him and the other two never met him?
Various elements play a role in their relationship with their grandfather. On the one hand, the grandchildren are very proud of his body of artistic work. On the other hand, all through their lives they have been confronted with the fact that G.W. Pabst returned to Austria shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War and then couldn’t get away, so he had to make films under the Nazi regime. G.W. Pabst was a socialist and was nicknamed the "rote Pabst" in the 1920s (playing with the homophone German word Papst for Pope, rot meaning red) But he is often referred to as a "Nazi director" because he made films during the Third Reich. The other element is a personal one; the grandchildren have very critical issues with both Trude and G.W. in their role as parents. In other words, they confront the great legacy of their grandparents both socially and psychoanalytically.
Why is G.W. Pabst's film Pandora's Box the inspiration for the title of your film? Do you feel as though you have opened up something with your work?
An imaginary box is opened, and well-kept secrets come to light. I was inspired by this association. After all, the film is about a great legacy of the family, and Pandora (played by Louise Brooks) even plays an indirect role: G.W. Pabst had an affair with her, so she has a special place within the family. My cinematic work has opened up a lot. I am very happy that the family appreciates the film, and that it has set a major process in motion. The family has even commissioned a comprehensive biography of their grandfather now, which has never existed as such. The grandchildren have become much closer to each other and have learned a lot about their family history.
To what extent can a film also contribute to making visible a woman who was kept in the realm of the invisible as if it were a matter of course, from a patriarchal standpoint?
When I read Trude's diaries for the first time, I knew I wanted to shed light on this woman, who was in the shadow of her famous husband all her life. And PANDORA'S LEGACY will help make this exciting personality visible. Most people know nothing about Trude Pabst, although she was already an actress before her marriage to G.W. Pabst and played several small roles. It is true that he kept her in the realm of the invisible through his patriarchal behaviour. He didn't want his wife to become famous and perhaps outshine him. That's why he didn't let her star in his films. But she emancipated herself from him in her own way and developed further. Through her spirituality, she has created her own space, perhaps also to distance herself from him.  I have told her story through her dreams, experiences and fears as I found them in her letters. The audience plunges deep into her subconscious – and also into another time that can’t really be compared to today.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
December 2023

Translation: Charles Osborne

«As a director, he created modern, strong female characters in his early films. He was able to empathize with the female psyche better than many other directors of his time. Yet he was a patriarch in his family.»