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In this rarely seen masterwork of the German Expressionist movement, a trilogy of terror is woven around the wax figures of a carnival show. An idealistic young poet (Wilhelm Dieterle, later to become a Hollywood director) is hired to write stories about the Chamber of Horrors' three most notorious figures: Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss), Ivan the terrible (Conrad Veidt) and Haroun Al-Raschid (Emil Jannings). But as the uncanny tales flow from the poet's pen, he finds himself enveloped in the nightmare worlds of his own creation. One of the most innovative stylists of the German silent cinema, director Paul Leni (The Cat and the Canary, The Man Who Laughs) applied a variety of visual techniques to this ambitious anthology film, drawing from his years as a set designer under the great Max Reinhardt. From the fairy-tale Arabia of the Al-Raschid story (said to have inspired Douglas Fairbanks to make The Thief of Bagdad), to the dark and oppressive kingdom of Ivan the Terrible, to the whirling lights and swordlike shadows of the carnival through which Jack the Ripper stalks the protagonist, Leni managed to raise the techniques of German Expressionism to new conceptual heights.
Lesser-known among silent German classics, Waxworks is a carnival of a movie inviting you to visit three distinct freak shows and sample the thrills and peculiarities each has to offer. A young poet (Wilhelm Dieterle, who became Hollywood director William Dieterle) is hired to pen "startling tales" about three figures on display in the Wachsfigurenkabinett. Somehow he and his boss's daughter (Olga Belajeff) win plum roles in each fantasia he concocts. The Arabian Nights episode, featuring Emil Jannings hamming it up as Caliph Haroun al-Raschid, boasts demented architecture and a blend of comedy and surrealism that inspired Douglas Fairbanks's Thief of Bagdad. Conrad Veidt, making a memorably mad Russian icon of Ivan the Terrible, towers amid episode 2's fiercely angular compositions. Then, still-unnerving double-exposure cinematography is used to bring "Spring Heel Jack" (Werner Krauss's version of Jack the Ripper) out of the realm of fantasy and menacingly into the real-world framing story. Get your ticket right here. --Richard T. Jameson
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Leni was among the apprentice filmmakers and artisans profoundly influenced by Caligari. That inspiration came to fruition in the anthology film Waxworks ( screenplay by Henrik Galeen, also responsible for Golem-1920 and Nosferatu-1922). Leni's breakthrough film is no mere carbon copy of Caligari. Indeed, Waxworks is something of a yardstick for what an anthology film should be. William Dieterle (later an esteemed director whose credits include 1937's Life of Emile Zola, the superior 1939 remake of Hunchback of Notre Dame, and 1940's Dr. Erlich's Magic Bullet) plays several characters, including the poet hired to write an article about wax figures of historical tyrants in a sideshow museum. This framing sequence segues into a fantastic, carnivalesque omnibus. In the first segment, Emil Jannings play Al-Raschid. In this introductory Caliph vignette, Leni's design work with Max Reinhardt is at its most impressive and expansive. The ambiance is, paradoxically, both larger than life and remarkably introverted. Fanciful, intricate roads wind and turn, leading to the Caliph's aberrant belfry. Gloom-laden canvases, crackling signs, and a towering wheel are remnants of a spidery, crepuscular bacchanal. Caligari`s design is comparatively static next to this fluid, humorous, and transcendental Arabian tale.
Conrad Veidt gives a harrowing, anemic performance as Ivan the Terrible. Angular and clammy, this segment is a paranoid fable which ends with a stark, memorable scene of the scourged despot forever turning the hour glass, convinced of his fate (death by poisoning). Leni's use of Eastern Orthodox iconography, inhabiting a shadowy world, is refreshingly and expressively idiosyncratic. Helmar Lerski's cinematography, which proved to be a considerable influence on Eistenstein, aggrandizes Ivan's maniacal state.
The Jack the Ripper finale has been much discussed and is more a sketch than a climax. Werner Krauss plays the infamous Whitechapel serial killer who dominates the shadows, blade in hand, awaiting the poet and his lover. This surreal whisper was originally intended to lead into a fourth narrative based off Vulpius' "Rinaldo Rinaldini." Although the dreaded captain's wax likeness can be seen in several scenes, budget restraints forced that narrative to be deleted.
After Waxworks, Hollywood beckoned. Considering what was to follow in Hitler's Germany, Leni's departure from his homeland may have saved the Jewish artist, but, most cruelly, fate prematurely deprived him, and us, of his life and art.
* My review originally appeared at 366 Weird Movies
First, Haroun Al-Raschid is played by Emil Jannings. This story is fairly humorous and very fun to watch, with a chase scene through an Escher-esque set as a baker tries to escape after a failed attempt at thievery.
This is followed by Ivan the Terrible, played by Conrad Veidt. Conrad plays an eerie, insane, and meglomaniacal potrayal of the famous tyrant. Ivan, as promised, is indeed, terrible and Conrad's acting adds volumes with this peek into murderous insanity.
Werner Krauss portrays Jack the Ripper in the third story (dreamed by the sleeping writer). His performance is grand and uncanny, though the association of Jack the Ripper with Spring Heeled Jack is highly erronious, and distracting. While Jack the Ripper never displayed any uncanny abilities to speak of (in the film as well), Spring Heeled Jack was known to leap great distances and heights and breath fire. These two characters have little in common, even down to the fact that there were numerous descriptions of Spring Heeled Jack by eye witnesses, and very few of Jack the Ripper. Additionally, Spring Heeled Jack is only credited with one murder, seemingly accidental. By combining them in such a poor manner, Leni does an injustice to two classic legends.
This film is classic of German Expressionism, and aside from bad scholarship, lives up to its reputation. The DVD includes the necessary original color-wash familiar to German silent films of its time, and is a very nice print to watch. Included as extras in this volume are REBUS FILM I, a fun 1926 short by Leni combining live footage and animation to perform a crossword puzzle on film. Also, an excerpt from Douglas Fairbanks's THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, as a comparision to Emil Jennings's role in WAXWORKS. The film WAXWORKS has 12 different scene selections.
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In it, we enter the Waxworks where a new writer is being engaged to spin tales about three wax...Read more