I have noticed that it has almost been three years since the screening of one of the most stylish silent films of the 1920s at The Electric Cinema on August 5, 2018. Situated on Station Street, Birmingham, The Electric Cinema has been the oldest working cinema in Britain and therefore seemed to be the ideal place for the showing of lauded German director Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s silent 1929 classic Pandora’s Box.
Based on Frank Wedekind’s plays Erdgeist (1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904), Pandora’s Box (German: Die Büchse der Pandora) was made in Pabst’s most famous movie. As well as being a brilliantly crafted picture, made in Pabst’s typical realist style, Pandora’s Box is mostly remembered for his collaboration with legendary Hollywood actress Louise Brooks.
Born in Cherryvale, Kansas in 1909, Louise Brooks is regarded as a Jazz Age icon and a flapper sex symbol who popularized the bob hairstyle during the 1920s. Brooks had a promising Hollywood career following memorable performances in It’s the Old Army Game (1926), The Show-Off (1926), A Girl In Every Port (1928), and most notably in Beggars of Life (1928).
However, it was her move to European cinema that elevated Louise Brooks’ critical status. Pandora’s Box is a brilliant late silent classic from Germany and Brooks is unforgettable as Lulu, the seductive and manipulative dancer, who brings ruin to those who love and desire her.
Words can not explain just how incredible it felt to watch Louise Brooks on the big screen at the very cinema that would have screened her movies back in her day. Over a century had passed and the picture house looked exactly as it was back then. The external architecture of this rather small theatre is a classical style, white exterior with art deco, that was typical of the period.
As soon as you enter the front door, you would be immediately jettisoned back to early cinema. Judging from the old monochrome photographs, the current internal structure looked almost identical to the original picture house.
Even the traditional box office window located by the right of the entrance was still there. The young staff were friendly and seem proud to be part of the theatre.
The cinema itself looked atmospheric, with its darkly lit red lighting which compliments the luxurious ruby-colored seating. The décor and the seating was almost identical to how it looked back in the 1920s. A dark brown cabinet that covered the music organ was present at the front of the screening room. From what I was told the music organ was still inside the cabinet.
There were more expensive seats at the back, each seat cleverly named after various film icons such as Keaton, Valentino, Harlow, and Laurel. I sat on one of the cheaper seats.
Staff members were almost certain that Brooksie’s most famous film Pandora’s Box was screened at The Electric back in the day, but it is unlikely that the original print was shown. Pandora’s Box was heavily edited and cut on release.
Pandora’s Box was largely dismissed by critics on the original release and it was not until a few decades later that the newly discovered uncensored film was reappraised as a masterpiece of Weimar Republic cinema.
Nevertheless, the original audiences would have experienced the star quality of Louise Brooks in a manner not too dissimilar to the experiences of contemporary audiences. The full house compromised of members from all age groups, each one gazing at their programs with devoted interest and not a single phone in sight.
Sadly, The Electric Cinema is also facing the end of an era. The oldest running cinema looks like it will be running no more.
The Electric Cinema Birmingham, which opened in 1909, had been closed due to Covid, now faces an even bigger issue due to the impending end of its 88-year lease.
As the freeholder has yet to decide about its plans for Station Street, the cinema is not able to reopen. This uncertainty has also meant they have been unable to apply for the Cultural Recovery Fund or any other financial support.
The Electric Cinema building now looks abandoned. It has sadly become a relic from a bygone age. The paint looks worn, the notices appear worn and the front doors have been chained and padlocked. How can they let this happen?
The chances of The Electric Cinema reopening do not look good but I live in hope. With this perfect setting, a devoted crowd, and an iconic movie star like Louise Brooks, we can dream of enjoying again another unforgettable cinematic experience at what has been the oldest working cinema in the country.