If there’s anything I’ve learned from studying early film, it’s that one has to be very careful about throwing around the word “first.” With so many silent films gone forever, what we think of as the first example of a type of film is often merely the first surviving example. (See the Film Dirt post on the first werewolf film, which may just turn your ideas about film werewolfery upside down.)
Paul Leni’s Waxworks is often referred to as the earliest horror film anthology, and while it could be argued that it’s the first influential one (or the first good one), it’s predated by 1919’s Eerie Tales. (If you know of one that beats Eerie Tales, by all means, let me know.) If there’s anything makes Waxworks questionable as an anthology horror film, it’s the fact that the stories are not strictly horrific, but a mix of fantasy, adventure, and horror—in a similar vein to a Weird Tales comic, if you ask me, and those are classified as horror. Horror takes many forms, from the somewhat thrilling to the truly gruesome, and Waxworks covers the gamut. Most everyone who sees it will have a favorite segment, and which segment that is may depend largely on a person’s preferred genre (or favorite actor).
|Wax figures on display in Waxworks. Note the third figure, whose segment was cut from the film due to budget constraints.|
Waxworks was director Paul Leni’s last film in Germany before he headed to Hollywood at the behest of Carl Laemmle and made some of the most important horror films of the late silent era: The Cat and the Canary (1927)—which practically invented the “old dark house” genre—and The Man Who Laughs (1928). The film’s German title is Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, an example of the kind of thing Mark Twain likely had in mind when he wrote that “some German words are so long that they have a perspective.” If the “kabinett” part evokes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it’s no accident. Leni didn’t just make use of Caligari’s two leads (Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss); he patterned the whole film on its successful predecessor, right down to the fairground setting.
The film begins as a young poet (William Dieterle) answers a newspaper ad seeking a writer “for publicity work in a wax museum.” Though nothing seems to make sense about a wax museum needing an in-house writer, he takes a what-could-possibly-go-wrong attitude and applies within. The proprietor is played by John Gottowt, who silent horror fans will know from The Student of Prague, Genuine, and as Nosferatu’s version of Van Helsing. He has a lovely daughter as an assistant (of course), and they ask the writer to come up with some “startling tales” about the wax figures on display, hoping it will somehow drum up business. (“I wish there were more here to read”--said no wax museum patron ever.) While the three are perusing the figures in the wax collection, Harun al-Rashid’s arm falls off (making it even more puzzling that the proprietor thinks hiring a poet is the best use of his budget). The writer—proving he’s really keen to earn his paycheck—gets right to work, saying he’ll write a story about how the figure lost his arm.
|If he continues to print the whole story like this, he's going to need a lot of paper.|
Thus, we are transported into an Arabian Nights tale, with Emil Jannings playing against type as a rather goofy, huge-bellied Caliph. The poet imagines himself as a humble pie baker whose billowing smoke causes al-Rashid to lose a game of chess and subsequently demand the baker’s head. He sends his Grand Vizier to do the head-chopping, but he returns sans head to report that the baker may be in possession of something much more interesting than his noggin: his sexpot of a wife. The Caliph, in disguise, sets out to seduce the baker’s wife, and he couldn’t be more repulsive, making the hourglass shape with his hands, calling her “my casket of honey,” and practically drooling all over her. Meanwhile, the baker has stolen into the Caliph’s abode and stolen his magic ring (a pretty adventurous, not to mention stylish, scene unfolds as he is pursued). Hijinks ensue when he returns home, where his wife has locked the door and hidden the Caliph in the oven to avoid the appearance of infidelity. The magic ring ends up saving the day, and everyone ends up pretty happy.
|A very stylish Baghdad.|
The second segment features Ivan the Terrible, played by the unmatchable Conrad Veidt. Veidt is exciting even at the film’s beginning when he’s merely posing as the wax version of Ivan. He no doubt got some practice at being still when he played Caligari’s somnambulist, but here he’s wide-eyed, and somehow almost as expressive as when he’s in motion. His Ivan is appropriately terrible, skulking around in torture dungeons and relishing the deaths of his victims. The official Poison Mixer, who also seems to be something of a mystic, announces an impending victim by writing his name on an hourglass. After the glass is turned over and the poison introduced, the victim dies as the last bit of sand falls. Ivan becomes increasingly paranoid that he will be targeted, and even manages to have a nobleman killed by trading clothes with him and letting him be assassinated. We know Ivan’s number is up, though, when the Poison Mixer writes “ZAR IWAN” on his hourglass. Veidt is deliciously manic as he continuously turns over the hourglass, hoping to postpone his inevitable end.
|Veidt doing what he does best: playing insanity.|
Segment three is the shortest, but is perhaps the most memorable of all the stories. The title cards refer to the third villain as “Spring Heeled Jack,” while the credits refer to “Jack the Ripper.” The Werner Krauss character bears the most resemblance to an updated Ripper as his wax figure comes to life and stalks the poet and the owner’s daughter through the museum’s twisted, expressionistic halls—which easily call to mind a stylized version of the streets of London, foreshadowing 1927’s The Lodger. (Spring Heeled Jack, it should be noted, was a character from urban legends, known for looking like a demon and jumping off of rooftops. Though many sources think he’s the character being referenced here, I respectfully disagree, and believe Leni simply confused his name with the other notorious Jack.) In somewhat predictable fashion (though common for the time), the poet awakes just as Jack begins to do his ripping.
|Screenshot from the exceptionally expressionistic Ripper scene.|
The brief Ripper sequence was meant to segue into a fourth story, though budget constraints are said to have led to its elimination. The missing tale was to be the story of Rinaldo Rinaldini, a robber captain who appeared in a popular penny dreadful of the late 18th century. You can still see the wax figure of Rinaldini, who was to be played by Dieterle, in the film’s early scenes. (He’s the guy in the big hat.)
Even with all the German film luminaries involved, the film’s design is the true star of Waxworks. Leni has given Caligari a run for its money with his deep shadows, neon signs, merry-go-rounds and warped staircases. While it’s far from realistic—the city of Baghdad looks like an abstract charcoal painting—it’s exactly what Leni wanted. In his own words, the director said, “For my film Waxworks I have tried to create sets so stylized that they evidence no idea of reality. All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines, and curves.” And: “I cannot stress too strongly how important it is for a designer to shun the world seen everyday and to attain its true sinews…”
|Waxworks production sketch by Paul Leni.|
A word should be said about the score, composed and performed by Jon C. Mirsalis on the version I watched (part of Kino’s 2004 German Horror Classics collection, and also available as a standalone DVD). I’ve been lucky enough to hear Mirsalis play at live screenings, and here he is appropriately stylish—a musical counterpart to Leni’s work—without ever overshadowing the film. A perfect accompaniment.
Though not the first true horror anthology film, Waxworks set the standard for anthology films to follow, and its influence is evident in non-anthology films as well. Veidt’s performance as Ivan was the model for Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in 1946, and the Harun al-Raschid segment reportedly inspired Douglas Fairbanks to make Lawrence of Arabia. Leni’s influence would no doubt have made his name as huge as Murnau’s or Browning’s is today, had it not been for his death in 1929 at age 44, from blood poisoning caused by an infected tooth. Leni was slated to direct Dracula, for which Universal had recently acquired the rights, with Conrad Veidt to star. The teaming of Leni and Veidt for Universal’s Dracula may be one of Hollywood’s greatest what-might-have-beens (though no one can really argue with the success of the resulting Browning/Lugosi film).
Leni may not have lived long enough to become one of the household names in horror, but all of his films deserve a long look, and Waxworks deserves its place in early horror film history.
This film was originally watched as part of Film Dirt's 31 Days of Silent Horror. See the full list here.