This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series
Movie Review – Waxworks (1924)
The German film Waxworks (1924) is commonly classified as a fantasy-horror, though more accurately it is an anthology film with horror elements coming into play only in the latter half. Written by Henrik Galeen, the structure clearly takes inspiration from 1919’s Eerie Tales, even having two of the actors playing multiple roles, and from Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921). The framing story involves a wax exhibition at a fair that hires a young writer to create fantastic stories about their figures, which include Huran al Raschid, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper.
The sets of each tale are of course stylistic in the German Romantic sense, such as was seen in 1920’s The Golem: How He Came into the World. Their interesting construction is largely due to director Paul Leni’s early struggles as an avant garde artist and as a working set designer. In 1924 he explained his approach to the German film magazine Kinematograph:
“If the designer merely imitated photography to construct sets, the film would remain faceless and impersonal. There has to be the possibility of bringing out an object’s essential attributes so as to give the image style and color…
This is particularly necessary for films set wholly in a world of unreality. For my film Waxworks I have tried to create sets so stylized that they evince no idea of reality. My fairground is sketched in with an utter renunciation of detail. All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines and curves. It is not extreme reality that the camera perceives, but the reality of inner events, which is more profound, effective and moving than what we see through everyday eyes, and I equally believe that the cinema can produce this truth, heightened effectively.
I may perhaps cite the example of Caligari and The Golem, in which Hans Poelzig created a town’s image. I cannot stress too strongly how important it is for a designer to shun the world seen every day and to attain its true sinews…
It will be seen that a designer must not construct ‘fine’ sets. He must penetrate the surface of things and reach their heart. He must create mood (Stimmung) even though he has to safeguard his independence with regard to the object seen merely through everyday eyes. It is this which makes him an artist. Otherwise I can see no reason why he should not be replaced by an adroit apprentice carpenter.”
In addition to memorable sets, the film contains some notable actors of German horror cinema. The first tale stars Emil Jannings, looking far more rotund than he did in Eyes of the Mummy Ma (1918) six years earlier, playing the 8th century Caliph. The story is light and the ending is actually quite entertaining and funny, with Jannings playing the role with a joking glee, and it reportedly inspired Douglas Fairbanks to make Thief of Bagdad (1924) the same year. The humorous nature of the episode is an indication that the terror-film cycle that began with the deadly seriousness of Caligari and continued with Nosferatu was now coming to an end (S.S. Prawer, Cailagri’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, 42).
Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss, who both played major roles in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), also appear. Veidt plays Ivan the Terrible, being appropriately malicious and menacing, especially as he claps his hands to force a grieving wedding party to dance and to drink while the father of the bride lies dead on the banquet hall’s steps. Steve Haberman aptly describes the effectiveness of Veidt’s performance, recognizing that “the part could have been played as merely a leering sadist, but Veidt constantly emphasizes the almost childlike fear Ivan suffers of those around him, even in his own palace. Though he is the Czar, he seems like a wicked little boy among grown-ups, staring at them with wide, guilty eyes, waiting for one of them to punish him” (Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film, 62).
Krauss, who had played the titular Caligari, inhabits a fairly small role as Jack the Ripper, who the film combines with the Victorian urban legend of Spring-heeled Jack in a dream sequence reminiscent of the painted sets of Caligari, a manic disorientation created by a maze of double exposures. Through this sequence “Leni created the closest equivalent to a nightmare that the cinema had yet presented” (Haberman 63).
The writer is played by William Dieterle, who would also appear in F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926). A fourth segment, based upon Rinaldo Rinaldini, had been written but cut due to budget constraints, and Dieterle would have played that role. In the mid-1930s, as Nazi policy and aggression mounted, Dieterle immigrated to the United States and became an American citizen in 1937. He would go on to a long and successful Hollywood career.
The wax exhibit owner’s daughter, and the main love interest of the stories’ various protagonists, is played by Russian-born Olga Belajeff, born in 1900, who had a strong career until the advent of talkies.
Director Paul Leni would accept an invitation in 1927 by Carl Laemmle, a founder of Universal movie studios, to come to America and direct. His debut American film would be the horror-comedy The Cat and the Canary (1927), which would have a profound influence on subsequent haunted house movies released by Universal over the coming decades. In 1928 he again teamed up with Conrad Veidt to direct him in one of his finest performances as the title character in The Man Who Laughs, the film that inspired Bob Kane to create The Joker. Sadly, Leni would die the following year of sepsis.
Waxworks doesn’t offer anything new to the genre but what it does, it does well. It’s a fine piece of entertainment and a showcase for some of horror’s most influential designers and recognized masters of German Expressionist acting.