Paul Leni: Waxworks (1924) | IMDB
Paul Leni: Waxworks (1924) | IMDB

Paul Leni’s Haunting ‘Waxworks’ Comes to Life in This Restoration

Paul Leni’s silent film Waxworks (1924) is a brilliantly acted, engaging, and exhilarating example of German Expressionism on film.

Waxworks (as Wachsfigurenkabinett)
Paul Leni
Eureka! Video
9 November 2020

Eureka Entertainment’s Blu-ray of the newly restored version of Paul Leni’s superlative gothic melodrama The Man Who Laughs (1928) was one of the best releases of 2020. Showcasing Leni’s skill as a director while foregrounding the quite incredible acting talents of Conrad Veidt, the release proved to be a timely reminder that films from the silent era still possess the power to impress, enthrall, and move contemporary viewers.

Eureka’s follow-up Blu-ray is a newly restored version of Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, 1924), the final film that Leni directed in Germany before his subsequent move to Hollywood. It’s another high-quality production that once again finds both Leni and Veidt operating at the peak of their respective powers.  

A budding writer (Wilhelm Dieterle) responds to a job advertisement that has been placed by a local wax museum. The museum’s proprietor (John Gottowt) and his daughter (Olga Belajeff) are looking for someone to write startling stories about their key exhibits to attract more customers. Eager to demonstrate his skills, the writer immediately begins working on stories about two of the museum’s most prominent figures: the Caliph of Bagdad, Harun-al-Raschid (Emil Jannings), and the first Tsar of Russia, Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt).

The contents of these two stories are dramatically presented onscreen just as soon as the writer starts excitedly working on them. The exhausted scribe eventually falls asleep at his desk and experiences a nightmare about a third figure from the museum, a notorious killer called Spring-Heeled Jack (Werner Krauss). As with his written stories, the writer’s nightmare is duly presented onscreen too.

The chemistry present between the actors Wilhelm Dieterle and Olga Belajeff in their roles as the writer and the proprietor’s daughter is a thing of beauty. The pair hit it off immediately, and their expressive faces and flirtatious body language make a convincing case of love at first sight. The writer’s amorous feelings for the proprietor’s daughter work their way into both of his stories and his nightmare, resulting in Dieterle and Belajeff playing characters in all three of the standalone mini-dramas that Leni presents here.   

When the writer is told that the right arm has fallen off of the wax figure of Harun-al-Raschid, he sets about concocting a fanciful tale that would account for the Caliph losing an arm. He cheekily proposes that the romantic and mischief-loving Caliph could never stand to be bored and this results in him having a different wife for every day of the year. His hedonistic lifestyle soon finds the Caliph lusting after Zarah (Olga Belajeff) and coming into conflict with her protective partner, Assad (Wilhelm Dieterle) the baker. By sheer coincidence, Assad has already set himself the task of stealing the Caliph’s “wishing ring” in order to please his disgruntled lover.

The dissolves and picture overlay that Leni employs to show the writer and his new love “transforming” into the characters of Assad and Zarah in their imaginations work perfectly. This novel special effect is followed by an establishing long shot that shows the couple’s home amid a clutter of other buildings within Bagdad. This set is an example of the creativity associated with German Expressionist filmmaking at its best.

Indeed, the set remains both slightly mind-bending and wholly impressive in its design and construction. Furthermore, it sets a very high standard that Leni (in his additional role as the film’s art director) manages to maintain and – at times – surpass. Indeed, parts of the Caliph’s grand but architecturally impossible-looking palace that appear later in the story look like something that we might find in a picture by M. C. Escher.

The story’s costume designs are pretty good too but some of the clothing has a theatrical look about it, which brings to mind the kind of garments that we might find in a high-end production of a popular tale like Aladdin. There’s also some well-executed and exciting action to be had here: the scenes where the Caliph’s guards pursue Assad as he climbs ever higher up the palace’s angular ramparts and scurries over its spherical tower heads are breathtaking.

The writer’s next story is about Ivan the Terrible and he focuses on the tyrant’s love of his torture chamber and his sadistic employment of oversized hourglasses to time the death throes of his unfortunate victims. This story’s excellent costumes, its magnificent but oppressive set designs, and its moody lighting really add to the dark themes of madness, paranoia, and torture that its harrowing narrative convincingly explores. While there were some fairly light-hearted and pantomime-like moments in the writer’s tale about Harun-al-Raschid, his Ivan the Terrible story is unrelentingly grim from start to finish.

Here Dieterle and Belajeff play a pair of young nobles whose wedding day is completely ruined when the bride’s dutiful father invites Ivan to join the couple as they celebrate their big day. Things just go from bad to worse for the young lovers and the story features much in the way of disturbing and upsetting scenarios, all of which revolve around Conrad Veidt’s brilliant turn as the ice-cold, devious, and completely deranged Ivan. Veidt’s performance is a tour de force that single-handedly provokes and perpetuates the palpable feelings of suspense, threat, and dread that permeate the story.

The film’s final episode is quite short when compared to the first two. After looking in on his new love – who is now fast asleep in bed – the exhausted writer falls asleep just as he has begun to write about the murderous exploits of Spring-Heeled Jack. His subsequent nightmare is initially represented by a series of wild but impressive Expressionist-style superimpositions that show Spring-Heeled Jack silently stalking him and his beloved as they try to escape from him within a fairground setting. Things grow even more sinister when the couple try to shake Jack off within a series of dark and deserted back streets. Werner Krauss is suitably menacing as their unrelenting pursuer.

The scary and disorientating world of the writer’s nightmare is brought to life by some excellent set designs that are reminiscent of those that were featured in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which of course starred Werner Krauss as the eponymous doctor and Conrad Veidt as Cesare, the baleful somnambulist. Moody lighting and buildings that feature odd structural angles and painted shadows are employed to great effect until a welcome cross-fade effect returns the threatened couple to the real world, where they kiss for the first time and consolidate their budding relationship.

This finalé is a well-deserved happy ending for two wholly appealing characters and it brings the curtain down on a fine example of both silent cinema and German Expressionism on screen. Leni’s skill and original thinking as a film director and his exquisite vision as an art director come together in perfect synergy, while an impressive cast of actors works to bring Leni’s adventurous concepts to celluloid life in a wholly engrossing and satisfying way.                

This is a fine-looking presentation given the nature of the film elements that the restorers had to work with. There is no surviving original negative of Waxworks so the restoration teams at the Deutsche Kinemathek and the Cineteca di Bologna brought together a number of contemporary prints and additional film materials from around the world to assemble the best-looking version of the film possible. The final result (which runs 81 minutes) is based on the original British release of Waxworks (which is 25 minutes shorter than the now lost German version). The British version may be edited but it plays coherently and Leni’s artistic visions do not feel compromised.

The presentation’s picture quality fluctuates ever so slightly at times but it remains largely excellent. Indeed, the image is clear and sharp for the most part and it remains stable throughout. This is also quite a colourful presentation, since a variety of tinting and toning effects were employed to add drama and meaning to a number of sequences. There are two newly created musical accompaniments for Waxworks presented here. Richard Siedhoff’s offering is a more traditional sounding piano-led score, while the Ensemble Musikfabrik employ a fuller-sounding, band-led approach. Both are equally effective.

The release’s extra features include an audio commentary by the Australian film critic Adrian Martin, an interview with Julia Wallmüller of the Deutsche Kinemathek (in which she details some of the sequences that were cut from the British version of Waxworks), an interview with the film journalist Kim Newman and Rebus-Film Nr. 1 (Paul Leni’s short experimental film that originally played alongside Waxworks in German cinemas). The first 2,000 copies of this release come with a slipcase and a booklet that features writing by critics Philip Kemp, Richard Combs, and Wallmüller.