Kino International included Paul Leni‘s 1924 Waxworks in its German Horror Classics collection. While the usual Kino craftsmanship has gone into remastering and merchandising, the inclusion of Leni’s breakthrough film is a bit of a misclassification. Waxworks is not a “horror” film. It is representative of what may possibly be the most experimental period in the medium of film: German Expressionism. This style exploded with Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which turned out to be an even more influential film than D.W. Giffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915).
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.