(1924) dir. Paul Leni, Leo Birinsky
My third Paul Leni silent film (The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Man Who Laughs (1928)) further proves that while not necessarily a master, certainly on one of the higher rungs of Expressionist Silent film. Waxworks earns its Expressionism via odd sets and strange angles, curious and occasionally Surreal moments.
Waxworks is an anthology film, an oddly structured thing, with three stories told from the quill of a writer (believe it or not, a publicity writer), hired to promote the scary figures from a traveling Wax Museum. First, he tells the tale of Harun al Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad, posing the young writer and the waxworks’ owner’s daughter in lead roles. Emil Jannings is the rotund caliph. It’s kind of hard to see where it’s going, but it ends up to be a more heroic narrative (supposedly also the inspiration for Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924)).
The second story is that of Ivan the Terrible, played by the also notable Conrad Veidt. It’s more a tale of insanity and evil, with some very arch moments and designs.
And then you think there’s going to be a third segment, and then the “Jack the Ripper”/”Spring-healed Jack” segment turns out to be a hallucinary nightmare of the tired-out writer, just asleep on the job. Ultimately, the film seems sort of ill-balanced, from both a narrative and also a thematic perspective.
It’s probably a silent film for more of a hardcore fan of the period, not having the more powerful peaks and images that some could concoct. And yet, at the same time, as a further example of German Expressionism, it’s an interesting additional entry, certainly to an extent due to its use of the potential fear factor inspired by wax figures, a theme that would enter the horror genre as a significant subgenre. The set designs and camerawork are the films’ highlights, but with the cast and participants, this is far from B-movie fare.