Distribution company Eureka continue their series of beautiful reissues of classic silent films with a lesser-known title, but one that boasts contributions from perhaps the ‘big three’ of Weimar-era German cinema. Emil Jannings (Madame DuBarry, The Last Laugh), Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Casablanca), and Werner Krauss (Caligari, Tartuffe) all appear as titular figures brought to life through the imagination of a writer. The three stars unfortunately don’t share any screen time, which feels like a missed opportunity. However, with its simple framing story and an early example of metafiction, Waxworks is a slightly lopsided, but stunningly beautiful curio from a precocious talent whose career was sadly cut all too short.
A poet (William Dieterle) answers an advert looking for an author to write dramatic stories for the waxworks tent of a carnival. The three figures are 8th century Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Veidt), and the infamous Jack the Ripper (Krauss). Noticing that the Caliph is missing an arm he begins to weave the first of his stories, the tale of how Harun came to lose his appendage. In each story the author casts himself as a romantic lead involved with Eva (Olga Belajeff), the pretty daughter of the sideshow owner, with their love threatened by the subject. In the first, they’re Assad and Maimune, a baker and his wife whose marriage is threatened by the attentions of the priapic Caliph. In the second, they’re a young couple whose wedding is hijacked by the increasingly maddened Ivan. In the third, Jack the Ripper comes to life and stalks the pair.
Waxworks may be widely considered a horror anthology. In truth, it is only really the Jack the Ripper segment that tilts overtly in that direction. The Harun al-Rashid story is more of a romantic farce, and the fate of Ivan the Terrible is a morality tale steeped in a brutal sense of poetic irony. As a portmanteau film, it resembles the structure of Fritz Lang‘s Destiny, and the al-Rashid section strongly recalls the ‘Story of the First Light’ segment of Lang’s film. It is certainly the most visually striking, with the bulbous domes of Islamic architecture added to the customary geometric surrealism of German Expressionism. One chase sequence features perhaps the most stunning set seen in the entire movement. Dieterle hurtles through a series of weird tunnels that look as if Antoni Gaudí and William Morris had taken up production design, or MC Escher had developed a taste for the sinewy lines of art nouveau.
Though the Harun al-Rashid section may be visually ravishing, it is a fairly dull tale, ripped from the Arabian Nights and almost instantly eclipsed by the considerable charisma of Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad the same year. It is also the longest by a fair margin. Thankfully, the Ivan the Terrible is easily the strongest. A bleak and sombre tale that sees the murderous Tsar fall victim to paranoia and madness, it benefits from the mood we most often associate with Weimar cinema, and the haunting eyes and straggly beard of Veidt. His look in this segment would allegedly inform Sergei Eisenstein‘s take on the tyrant. Infused in smoke and fog and unusual purple and orange tints, it’s subterranean in both setting and tone, with a really satisfying conclusion (if fanciful, Ivan himself succumbed to a stroke during what we can only assume was a particularly stimulating game of chess).
The Jack the Ripper section, by contrast, is a mere wisp of a tale. At six minutes it feels more like a conclusion to the framing device than a story in its own right. It also rather conflates the Ripper story with that of Spring-heeled Jack, perhaps a common parallel in those days given the Ripper legend was still germinating; the murders themselves still very much in living memory. Krauss is hugely effective in his brief screen time as a well-tailored, but blank-eyed and intractable killer, who stalks the young pair like a tweedy Terminator. It is a slight piece of narrative sleight of hand, and all too brief. It is possible this section was originally much longer. With no complete original negative available, the restoration was carried out using fragments from several copies, and 25 minutes appears to be lost forever.
While far from an essential work of silent cinema, Waxworks is still a fascinating piece of work. Much of this comes, as with all early artefacts from an artform, from its place in film history. Narrative cinema was still embryonic and protean at this point, so it’s interesting to look back with another full century of hindsight to see which aspects look conventional, and which look odd to modern eyes. Waxworks is a lesser piece compared to the recent reissue of Leni’s superior The Man Who Laughs, but the talent which drew the bigwigs at Hollywood to lure him across the Atlantic is very much in evidence. With his death in 1929 at the age of 44 as his American career was just gaining traction, Paul Leni can be considered one of the great lost talents of early cinema, along with the likes of Rudolph Valentino and Jean Vigo.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 9 Nov 2020