Directors: Paul Leni, Leo Birinsky (exact contribution unclear)
Screenplay: Henrik Galeen
Starring: Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, William Dieterle, Olga Belajeff, John Gottowt
Running Time: 82 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Paul Leni’s film career began in art direction and production design on a number of films, including some for Lubitsch, Alexander Korda and Mikhail Kertész (a.k.a. Michael Curtiz). He began directing his own films in 1917, but 1924’s Waxworks was his first major box-office success. It helped get him noticed in the industry as a director and was likely the major factor that got him headhunted by Universal’s Carl Laemmle. Leni’s career in Hollywood was very successful too, whilst it lasted, bringing the popular and highly regarded The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughed (1928) before his untimely death in 1929, aged 44.
On top of leading Leni to fame and fortune in the US, Waxworks was a highly regarded late entry into the German Expressionist movement. Its style and techniques are believed to have inspired a wide range of films, such as Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dead of Night (1945), House of Wax (1953) and Black Sabbath (1963). Some have even suggested the final portion of the film helped pave the way for the slasher movie, with its relentless, soulless, silent, murderous villain.
After greatly admiring The Man Who Laughed when reviewing Eureka’s recent Blu-ray release of the film, I was thrilled to hear the label were next setting their sights on Waxworks. I picked up a screener to see how it matched up to his later work.
Waxworks is an anthology film that is framed by the story of a writer/poet (William Dieterle) who heads to a funfair, replying to a newspaper advert looking for a talented author to come up with imaginative stories to accompany the main exhibits in a wax museum. The owner of the waxworks (John Gottowt) ushers him in and the writer gets straight to work. The owner’s daughter (Olga Belajeff) hovers over the writer’s shoulder and the pair imagine themselves in the stories being concocted.
The first story sees Emil Jannings play Harun al Raschid, the rotund Caliph of Baghdad, who is troubled by smoke coming from the bakery below his palace. He asks his Grand Vizier (Paul Biensfeldt) to kill whoever’s responsible, but when the Vizier meets the baker’s attractive wife (Belajeff) he is distracted from his job to execute the baker (Dieterle). The Vizier heads back to the Caliph to tell him of this beauty, which piques his interest. That night, the baker argues with his wife about their station in life and vows to make her rich by stealing the ‘wishing ring’ from the Caliph, heading off into the palace under the shadow of darkness. The Caliph, however, has headed out to find the baker’s wife and have his wicked way with her. This leads to hijinx and confrontations.
The second story tells of Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt). The tyrannical Czar of Russia takes great pleasure in torturing and killing those he dislikes. His favourite method is having his chief poisoner concoct a potion that will be timed perfectly to kill the victim as soon as the sands in their named hourglass have all fallen. However, when the poisoner takes pity on one victim, Ivan orders him to be the next to perish. In revenge, the poisoner writes Ivan’s name on a new hourglass. Ivan discovers this after he’s snatched a new bride (Belajeff) from her groom (Dieterle), leading the Czar to lose his mind.
The final story is more a short vignette that sees the waxwork of Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss – named Spring-Heeled Jack in the captions but not on the waxwork inscription) come alive and chase the writer and waxwork owner’s daughter in their dreams.
You’ll notice there are four figures in the wax museum. The script had a fourth story (that of Rinaldo Rinaldini) but it was never shot. Leni ran out of money, largely due to the shoot coinciding with hyperinflation and the collapse of the German economy. There was more to the film in general though, originally, which might go some way to suggest why the three stories are so irregularly lengthed (the first is over 40 minutes, the second shorter than this and the final only a few minutes in length). The German premiere release of the film ran around 20 minutes longer than the version we have here. The original negative of the film burnt in 1925 though and no prints of the premiere release version remain. The impressive restoration included on this disc was taken largely from a BFI nitrate print and a couple of other sources to fix some damaged and missing frames.
It’s a shame so much is missing, as the film does seem a little slight and underdeveloped in places. A restoration featurette describes how records show there was more to the framing story in particular. Some of the English intertitles seem a bit off too. The restoration team found a copy of some longer Swedish intertitles that make more sense and help provide some more clues as to what’s missing, but they kept the original English titles intact rather than alter them.
Anthology films, in general, are pretty slight and throw-away in terms of plot and depth though, so I shouldn’t hold that against Waxworks, particularly given the circumstances of the restoration. The stories are all satisfying and impressively varied too. The Caliph portion is an amusing and slightly bawdy romp, the Ivan the Terrible section is much darker and filled with dread, and the Jack the Ripper finale plays out like a surreal nightmare.
The film is driven by its style though. With Leni’s experience as an avant-garde artist and art director/production designer, he uses his skills to deliver stunningly realised sets and visuals. It’s this that has allowed the film to often be cited as an example of expressionism that’s as clear and impressive as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Leni goes to town in the Jack the Ripper section, in particular, using multiple exposures and painting on frames to create a strange hazy nightmare scape.
Also bolstering the film are performances from four of classic German cinema’s most famous actors, Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss and William Dieterle. They all do fine work, diving into their often larger-than-life characters with great aplomb.
It’s technically impressive then, but I must admit I felt something was missing. I don’t think it helped that I saw The Man Who Laughs fairly recently, which I believe is a much more well-rounded film. Waxworks doesn’t have the soul or humanity of that, instead coming across as merely a stylish showcase of technique.
It’s not quite the masterpiece that The Man Who Laughs is then, but Waxworks remains an entertaining and handsomely mounted trio of yarns. Perhaps the full version would have nudged it up to another level, but we’ll sadly never know.
Waxworks is out on 9th November on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The print was restored from several sources, so there is a little inconsistency in quality, but largely it looks fantastic, considering the circumstance, with impressive detail and a decent clean-up job. You get a choice of two scores too – one traditional piano track from Richard Siedhoff and a more avant-garde orchestral soundtrack by Ensemble Musikfabrik. I opted for the latter in my full watch through and enjoyed it a lot.
There are a host of special features included in the package:
– Limited Edition O-Card slipcase [First Print Run of 2000 copies ONLY]
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a new 2K restoration
– Option of two newly created scores, by Ensemble Musikfabrik; and composer Richard Siedhoff
– Audio commentary with Australian film and arts critic Adrian Martin
– Paul Leni’s Rebus-Film Nr. 1-8 Courtesy of Kino Lorber, these Leni-helmed cinematic crossword puzzles were originally screened in 1920s German cinemas as featurettes accompanying the main film. Each of these animated shorts was split into two parts a clue and an answer and presented before and after the visual presentation
– In search of the original version of Paul Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett: An interview with Julia Wallmüller (Deutsche Kinemathek) based on her presentation after the premiere of the restored film at Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna 2020
– Kim Newman on Waxworks An in-depth, on-camera interview with journalist, film critic, and fiction writer Kim Newman about the legacy of Waxworks
– PLUS: A collector’s booklet featuring new essays by Philip Kemp and Richard Combs on the film’s history and significance; notes on the restoration process by the Deutsche Kinemathek; and rarely seen production photographs and promotional material
The detailed restoration interview with Julia Wallmüller is necessary viewing. It gives you an idea of what is likely missing from the original version of the film, as well as helping you appreciate the work that went into the restoration process (taking around 6 years).
Paul Leni’s Rebus-Film Nr. 1-8 crossword puzzle film is a fun little addition, though it’s not particularly tricky. It contains some impressive effects for the time, including a fair bit of animation – stop motion and hand-drawn, as well as some very snappy editing.
Kim Newman’s piece is an affectionate look at what influenced the film and what it possibly helped influence in years to come.
The commentary by Martin similarly discusses the influence it had on the future of cinema or at least how it was forward-thinking. It’s a scholarly track, frequently quoting from academic work, but not off-puttingly so. I found it quite fascinating.
As is the norm from Eureka, the booklet is a valuable addition to the set too, containing some fascinating essays and production photographs.