Boris! Hang in there, I’m calling a lawyer!
This week we’re looking at Waxworks, from 1924. We’re back with the German Expressionists and look who’s here! Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Emil Jannings and William Dieterle, to name but a few. Waxworks is an anthology film like Der mude Tod, three stories set within a framing device, and while less profound is spooky, playful, and fun to watch, especially if you’ve grown to appreciate the acting ranges of the principal players. If it misfires in the end, it’s pretty plain it only did so because the filmmakers ran out of money. This is one of those occasions when a time machine would be useful: I’d love to go back, write out a check for however many marks they needed, and see what the director, Paul Leni, might have done with it.
Leni, better known for his later films The Cat and the Canary and The Man Who Laughs, opens Waxworks with superimposed footage of a fairground, similar to the opening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. We’re in a different dimension here, however: instead of the lumpily whirling carousel and tilted reality of the former film, we see real ferris wheels, real carousels, real merrymakers. A young man (“The Poet”, played by William Dieterle) sees a help-wanted notice outside a traveling wax museum. A writer is wanted to produce copy advertising the museum’s displays. Being, like all writers, broke, he grabs the notice and hurries in to offer his services.
He meets the elderly proprietor and the elderly proprietor’s flirtaceous daughter, Eva. The two young people are immediately attracted to each other. He is also shown the museum’s four exhibits: wax figures of the legendary Haroun al-Rashid, Caliph of Bagdad; Ivan the Terrible; Rinaldo Rinaldini (who never actually gets a sequence in the film because of the aforementioned cash flow problem, but in case you’re interested he was a bandit in an eighteenth-century German novel); and Jack the Ripper, or so the sign on his exhibit reads, but in the title cards he is repeatedly referred to as “Spring-heel’d Jack.” The scriptwriter seems to have conflated the serial murderer from 1888 with the cryptocreature from 1838.
The museum’s proprietor explains that he needs stories written for each of the statues. The Poet, noticing that the old man is carrying around a severed arm, asks about it and is told that Haroun al-Rashid’s arm just fell off and hasn’t been repaired yet. Grabbing inspiration where he can, the Poet sits down at once and, with a giggling Eva reading over his shoulder, proceeds to write a little tale in the style of the Arabian Nights. And… cue the German Expressionist sets! Now we’re back in the tilted streets and melting architecture of the Expressionist Dimension.
It serves the fantasy Bagdad of the film particularly well, too. Rather than elaborate block-long sets such as the ones built for The Thief of Bagdad, a couple of matte paintings and a few interiors and exteriors suffice. I was particularly struck by a shot of domes rising one behind the other like so many crescent-topped bubbles. Less being absolutely more.
We meet Haroun al-Rashid, the puckish little Caliph who likes to wander in disguise through his realm at night, helping his poorer subjects. He is so cuddly-tubby and adorable you just want to hug him, even when you realize he’s played by Emil Jannings, whose Mephistopheles makes such a blood-curdling entrance in Murnau’s Faust. We meet also a young baker and his wife, passionately in love and, of course, dead ringers for the Poet and Eva. The baker’s smoky oven annoys the Caliph, who sends out his Vizier to behead the baker. Evidently he doesn’t really mean it, because all the Vizier does when he gets there is sample some baklava and flirt through the window with the baker’s wife. He hastens back to tell the Caliph that there’s a real hottie living just around the corner, and the Caliph decides to check her out when he goes on the prowl (more like a waddle actually) that night.
Meanwhile, being leered at by a real Vizier has gone to the baker’s wife’s head and she starts whining about how she never gets to go out, never gets anything nice to wear, et cetera. In desperation, the baker swears that he will go steal the Caliph’s own Magic Wishing Ring for her, and storms out. Enter Haroun al-Rashid, who proceeds to pitch some sedate grandfatherly woo, to which the coy beauty responds with delight. It’s a farce with chases, slapstick, a fake severed arm and, that eternal source of mirth, a fat man trying to find a place to hide from a jealous husband.
But boy, oh, boy, does Waxworks change its tone for the next sequence.
Here’s Ivan the Terrible, psychoCzar of All the Russias, and he likes to go sneaking out at night too—but not to assist the struggling poor, no siree. He goes down into his dungeons to watch the screaming agonies of subjects he has condemned to death. His favorite poisoner has a neat little trick of handing the Czar an hourglass timed exactly to each prisoner’s final moments. The Czar clutches it to himself like a sex toy, writhing in orgiastic pleasure as he watches the condemned expire. Disturrrrbing.
And really, really scary, because Ivan is played by Conrad Veidt, better remembered as the Somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But all that was passive in Cesare—the glittering blank stare, the twitching, the flared nostrils—is active in Ivan, who is hypersensitive to every word spoken around him as only a paranoiac sadist can be. And, wouldn’t you know it, Ivan’s minister silkily suggests that even his favorite poisoner may be plotting against him. Overhearing this, the poisoner knows he’s doomed. For whatever reason (job insurance?) he goes to his cache of hourglasses and paints Ivan’s name on one of them…
Next, the Dumbest Boyar in the World has arrived at Ivan’s palace to remind him of his promise to attend the boyar’s daughter’s wedding. Ivan is immediately suspicious—and he has a point, because what kind of twit would invite an all-powerful homicidal looney to his daughter’s special day? “You’re just trying to lure me from the Kremlin!” screams Ivan, glaring with those unblinking eyes, and the boyar abases himself and protests that honest, it’s only a wedding invite!
Ivan announces he will go, but only if they trade garments first. The boyar has no choice but to obey. Ivan climbs into the driver’s seat of the horse-drawn sledge and the boyar, wearing Ivan’s robe and crown, takes the passenger’s seat. They go dashing through the snow and, by sheerest happenstance, armed assassins are waiting by the side of the road. Ivan pulls up in front of the reception hall with the poor boyar stone dead in the back seat, shot through with an arrow. The Czar grandly reclaims his crown and robe—what’s a few bloodstains?—and declares that this supposed to be a happy occasion! Everyone must drink! Musicians, play! Let’s see some dancing! The dismayed wedding guests snivel and cower, but they have no choice but to obey, with this staring monster seated at the head of the table.
The heartbroken bride (Eva, again) sneaks back outside to have a good cry over Daddy’s corpse, which has just been sort of dumped on the front steps. She is promptly arrested and carried off to the royal love nest (shudder) by Ivan’s henchmen. When the groom (the Poet, again), realizes this, he most unwisely accuses the Czar and is dragged off to the dungeons himself. Things get worse before they get better, believe me.
Next up is the tale of Jack the Spring-heel’d Ripper, the shortest sequence; I suspect the creditors had already begun to pound on Leni’s door at this point. It doesn’t really work, which is a shame, because Jack is played by Werner Krauss, better known as the magnificently slimy Dr. Caligari. He walks through a few effects shots, but we never really get even a good closeup, and it’s impossible to say what he might have done with the role if he’d been given his proper screen time. Too, he’s costumed in a homburg hat and jaunty scarf, which is… unexpected, for Jack the Ripper or the Spring-heel’d one. A dream sequence with the young lovers is so thoroughly telegraphed by camera effects and Caligari-esque dark labyrinthine streets that the scene loses any suspense. And then, abruptly, the film is over.
Still, I didn’t feel cheated—laffs, horror, high concept, what’s not to love? If you’d like to watch Waxworks too, you’re in luck; ever-reliable Kino has compiled the nicest print possible in a restoration from two extant copies. Extras are limited to a clip from The Thief of Bagdad showing scenes that were clearly influenced by Leni’s Haroun al-Rashid sequence. Thrown in as lagniappe is one of Leni’s experimental films, an odd little animated crossword puzzle with film footage clues. One suspects it was the sort of thing theater owners ran for restless audiences waiting for the lights to go down, like those Film Facts quizzes sponsored by Coke. It’s far more engaging, however.
Kage Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy as well as a regular blogger for Tor.com. She was gratified to see so many people competing for a copy of her novella, The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, and is currently working on further adventures…