‘Waxworks’ a Gem of German Expressionism

If you, like me, are an armchair fan of German Expressionism, you’ve probably seen The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari (Wiene, 1919) and Metropolis (Lang, 1927), and maybe even a few scenes from Nosferatu (Murnau, 1929), but one of my favorite German Expressionst films never gets taught in Film History 1A: Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924) which I just re-watched as part of my annual, personal, horror-thon.

I have no idea why this film is not as often referenced or remembered as those others. Maybe because Leni died too young, in 1929 before solidifying his reputation in Hollywood. It certainly is every bit as luxuriously dark and visually twisted as those other better-known films.

The visual design is dazzling throughout which is no doubt due to the fact that Leni was himself an Art Director. The sets feature elaborate, undulating expressionist curves — as opposed to Caligari‘s sharp angles — giving it an overall more organic feel which, for my money, makes it that much the creepier. The chiaroscuro lighting employed throughout seems to chisel it’s glowing images out of pure blackness.

Waxworks (1924)
John Gottowt, William Dieterle, and Olga Belajeff in Paul Leni’s ‘Waxworks’ (1924)

The sketch below shows a camera-set-lighting set up, which gives you an idea how they did things back in the bad-old Ufa days.

Waxworks Design Sketch
Ernst Stern’s sketch for ‘Waxworks’ (Caliph story)

As far as the film’s story goes, you might assume, as I did, that it’s an earlier version of House of Wax (1953), but no! This is actually a clever anthology – three tales within a framing device — not quite horror in the American sense. The owner of a wax museum hires a poet (William Dieterle) to write stories to accompany his statues. The poet, seeing the man’s lovely daughter, agrees and writes himself and the daughter into the tales he spins. First is an Arabian Nights-esque story about a baker (Dieterle), his wife, and the corrupt and lusty Caliph (Emil Jannings). Then a tale of Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt) interfering in a young couple’s wedding night. And lastly there is Jack The Ripper (Werner Krauss) — this tale is a bad dream and features layers of multiple exposures.

If you recognize the names I just dropped, you’re wowed. If not,  please allow your friendly Film History Prof to elucidate….

Emil Jannings

… was the pre-eminent German actor of his day, known for: The Last Laugh (Murnau, 1924), Varieté (Dupont, 1925), Faust (Murnau, 1926) and more. He was particularly great at playing decadent, satyr-like men lusting after young pretty girls, as he does here as the Sultan, with more comic-relief than was his usual.

Jannings came to Hollywood in the late 20s where he starred in The Way of All Flesh (Fleming, 1927) and The Last Command — winning the first Best Actor Oscar for those performances. Jannings then returned to Germany, possibly because his accent was too thick for “talkies.” Back home he was a favorite of Josef Goebbels who named him “Staatsschauspieler (state’s actor).” After the German defeat, because he’d starred in numerous Nazi propaganda films, he was not allowed to work as an actor again and had to undergo a de-Nazification program.

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Conrad Veidt

…was also a superstar of Weimar cinema. Remembered for The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari (Wiene, 1919)The Janus Head (Murnau, 1920), Hands of Orlac (Wiene, 1924). Super-lean with large eyes, Veidt managed to appear sinister, vulnerable, dangerous and elegant, all at once or changing at the drop of a hat. In Waxworks, his Ivan the Terrible, in this film, is truly terrible: evil, regal, perverse, and mad and the scariest thing in this film.

Veidt is one of my true-life heroes. Like so many others, he came to Hollywood in the 1920s but  returned to the relative artistic freedom of the German film industry. However as an outspoken anti-Nazi, things soon got too hot for him there, and he and his Jewish wife fled to the U.K. in 1933. He gave most of his wealth to the British war effort and worked there throughout the remainder of the 1930s, memorably playing Jaffar in the Powell-Korda-Menzies Thief of Bagdad (1940). He returned to Hollywood in 1941 where he made seven more films, notably in a dual role in Jules Dassin’s Nazi Agent (1941) and a little film entitled Casablanca directed by another anti-Nazi emigré, Michael Curtiz. Sadly Veidt died in 1943, abruptly, of a heart-attack while golfing.

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Paul Leni

…began as a set and costume designer becoming an Art Director before becoming a Director, which explains why his films are so visually rich and inventive. After Waxworks, he did a series of abstract shorts that were visual crossword puzzles, “Rebus Film” #1-8. He was brought to Hollywood by Carl Laemmle (Universal) where his first film was the seminal haunted house comedy, The Cat and the Canary (1927). He next directed a Charlie Chan film, The Chinese Parrot (1927) before being reunited with Conrad Veidt, who was also at Universal at that time, for the sumptuous costume-drama-horror The Man Who Laughs (1928). Next he did another haunting-mystery, The Last Warning (1929). Carl Laemmle had wanted Veidt to star in Dracula with Leni directing, but Leni died suddenly in 1929 (sepsis). While I appreciate the Browning-Lugosi film, I can only dream of the elaborately dark and sinister version this duo would have turned in.

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William Dieterle

…was a theatrical actor — discovered by Max Reinhardt —  before moving into films. He and his wife formed their own production company in 1927. In 1930, Dieterle was brought to Hollywood by First National/Warner Brothers. He was a prolific director with an impressive list of hits in the late 30s. His Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) — co-directed with famed theatrical director Max Reinhardt — is an overlooked masterpiece blending Hollywood star power and glamor with fantastical expressionistic design, including sets by Anton Grot. He also filmed the first version of The Maltese Falcon, Satan Met a Lady (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (Best Picture, 1937), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). He moved to Selznick Studios for the 1940s, helming The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), and Portrait of Jennie (1948) among others. He was sadly gray-listed throughout the 1950s, possibly due to his support of leftist refugees such as Bertol Brecht. He returned to Germany and did some television work before retiring in the late 60s.

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Werner Krauss

…was also an alum of Max Reinhardt’s theater troop. After serving in the German navy during WWI, he turned to film acting.  He was the sinister, titular Dr. Caligari and was featured in E.A. Dupont’s Varieté (1925), Murnau’s Tartüff (1925), and The Student of Prague (Galeen, 1926). Unlike the his Waxworks costars, he never worked in Hollywood, but like Jannings, he too was a proclaimed “Staatsschauspieler.” Goebbels even made him Vice President of the Reichskulturkammer (Third Reich Chamber of Culture). Also like Jannings, after the German defeat, he was banned from acting and ordered to undergo a de-Nazification program.

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I realize that watching expressionist, silent films on your computer or tv (or worse — your phone) is… not good.

They aren’t strong on plot, they are 90% visual impact, and meant to be seen at about 22 feet high in the dark. They lose a lot in translation any other way. So… sit close to your HDTV, turn off all the lights, and try to imagine Paul Leni’s voluptuous Waxworks towering over you.

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