Waxworks (1924)

aka Das Wachsfigurenkabinett

2020 #232
Paul Leni | 82 mins | digital (HD) | 1.33:1 | Germany / silent | PG

Waxworks

Often billed as the first portmanteau horror movie, Waxworks only fits the bill in the loosest sense: its “three stories” are actually two stories and a dream sequence, the first (and longest) of which is, if anything, a swashbuckling farce.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The film begins with a young writer (William Dieterle, who would later become a Hollywood director, responsible for 1938 Best Picture winner The Life of Emile Zola, amongst others) who is hired to pen backstories for the four statues in a carnival wax museum. Yes, four — the filmmakers ran out of money before they could film the fourth tale. As he begins writing, into each story he injects both himself and the museum’s curator’s daughter (Olga Belajeff) as his love interest.

The first tale is set in Arabian Nights-style Bagdad (IMDb says this part inspired Douglas Fairbanks to make The Thief of Bagdad, but a quick look at their release dates shows Fairbanks’ film came out months before Waxworks), and concerns a lecherous Caliph (Emil Jannings) who sets his sights on wooing a baker’s wife. It’s quite a sexualised segment all round: the baker kneads dough so erotically it sends his wife (and himself) all aquiver (I doubt it’ll do the same for many viewers, but it clearly works for them); later, the disguised Caliph sneaks into the baker’s home and spies the wife lying in bed with her back to him, and his gaze (and, by extension, ours) clearly lingers on her bottom (clothed, lest you think the film is uncommonly explicit). I guess the characters were too busy perving to apply logic to their decision-making: when the baker is too wary to slip a ring off the sleeping Caliph’s finger, he decides to chop his whole arm off instead. Totally reasonable. Meanwhile, why is the all-powerful Caliph worried about being found out by a lowly baker? Indeed, why’s he so worried that his guards will know he sneaks out at night? He’s the boss! On the bright side, there’s some beautiful and striking Expressionist set design; an exciting chase scene, set to dramatic percussive music in the new score by Bernd Schultheis, Olav Lervik, and Jan Kohl; and the wife’s save at the climax is a cunning twist. But, overall, it’s a bit of a daft farce.

Arabian nights

The second story stars Conrad Veidt as a Rasputin-esque Ivan the Terrible, who revels in killing prisoners in the Kremlin’s dungeons with an ultra-specifically-timed poison. If that wasn’t clue enough, this segment is thematically much darker. A bride’s father invites Ivan to attend the wedding, then the Czar insists they switch roles to travel there and the dad is killed by mistaken assassins. Then his arrow-pierced corpse is unceremoniously dumped on the front steps of his home while the wedding banquet continues inside; and when daughter sneaks away to grieve over his body, Ivan has some guards snatch her; and when the angry groom tries to attack Ivan, he’s ordered off to the torture chamber. Puts people who complain about rain on their wedding day into perspective, doesn’t it? Veidt is great as the deranged Ivan, although he’s so mentally unstable that it borders on comical. The finale doesn’t make much sense (he lets the girl go… then doesn’t?), but the denouement delivers a neat and fitting fate to Czar Terrible.

The third and final story begins with just five minutes of screen time left, so you know it’s not going to be wholly-realised tale. (Incidentally, the original German version of the film is lost, leaving us with only the English version, which is about 25 minutes shorter. What’s in those minutes? If anyone knows, they’re not saying online (to the best of my knowledge). Perhaps there was more linking material in the museum? Perhaps the third ‘story’ really was a whole story? Perhaps the first two were once even longer, though it’s hard to imagine how much more there could be to do in either of them — maybe the cuts were for the best…) Anyway, the third segment is the aforementioned dream sequence, in which the waxwork of Jack the Ripper comes to life and pursues the writer and his love (they met earlier that day but already seem pretty committed) through a series of highly impressionist sets, their disjointed oddity exacerbated by differently-aligned multiple exposures. It’s Expressionism to the max, and it’s suitably effective as a chiller. But, of course, it’s all a dream… and that’s suddenly the end!

Ivan's terrible, but Veidt's great

Like so many of the portmanteau films that have followed in its wake, Waxworks struggles to be the sum of its parts. It’s ultimately a bit underwhelming, with the first two stories being slower than necessary (and this is the cut version!) before giving way to a rushed finale. Make no mistake, there’s some very nice stuff in here, but it comes in bits and pieces. It’s a welcome watch for fans of silent cinema or early horror (with caveats about its “horror” content duly noted), and there are enough good parts to recommend it, but I wouldn’t argue it’s a classic in any enduring sense (beyond its obvious influence as a stepping stone to future portmanteau films).

3 out of 5

Waxworks is streaming on AMPLIFY! until 22nd November, and is released on Blu-ray as part of the Masters of Cinema Series today.

Also, new on AMPLIFY! today are…

  • what sounds like a German riff on Whiplash, but with violins, in The Audition
  • a documentary about the drawbacks of algorithms, Coded Bias
  • the UK premiere of Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, Falling
  • Catalan coming-of-age drama The Innocence
  • and unusual found footage documentary My Mexican Bretzel.

(If you don’t know, “bretzel” is the German word for “pretzel”.)

Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

aka Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

2017 #163
Robert Wiene | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Germany / silent (German) | U

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The poster child for German Expressionist cinema, as well as featuring “cinema’s first true mad doctor” and “cinema’s first unreliable narrator” (at least according to David Cairns on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray — I haven’t verified those statements for myself), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari certainly has a lot to unpack for a film that’s barely an hour-and-a-quarter long. Or does it? Because one has to wonder if there’s an element of style over substance here.

“A mystery story told in the Poe manner,” according to the original Variety review, the titular Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) is the host of a fairground attraction, and his eponymous cabinet contains Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist who Caligari controls — at the fair, to answer questions from the audience; and at night, to do his evil bidding, including murder. Caligari’s activities come to the attention of young Franzis (Friedrich Feher), who attempts to uncover the truth about the doctor and expose him.

But the most famous thing about Caligari by far is not the storyline or the characters, but the visual style. Painted backdrops evoke a landscape straight out of a nightmare: jagged lines and stark monochromatic shapes (this isn’t just a film that happens to be filmed without colour, it feels black and white), they give the impression of the winding streets of a town and its locales without actually being one. The implied structures tower over the characters, leaning in above, creating an oppressive and unnerving atmosphere, while their total lack of reality evoke theatre more than the literalism we’re now used to from film. The make-up and performances are the same: heightened; dreamlike — or nightmarish.

Impractical architecture

Which may be entirely appropriate given the film’s framing narrative, which (spoilers!) introduce an ending that’s a little bit “and it was all a dream”. Or was it? Well, that depends how you interpret what happens. The bookends were apparently added to help sell the film to the public, framing its fantastical narrative in something more grounded. The screenwriters weren’t happy — as Lotte H. Eisner writes (in the MoC booklet), “the result of these modifications was to falsify the action and ultimately to reduce it to the ravings of a madman. The film’s [screenwriters], Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, had had the very different intention of unmasking the absurdity of asocial authority, represented by Dr. Caligari.” Well, the tacked-on ending doesn’t necessarily negate such an interpretation, you just need to fill in the blanks to get there yourself.

For example, there’s what Cairns calls his “Mulholland Drive theory”: that what we witness is all true, until the point that Franzis sees the asylum director is Caligari; from there until the reveal that Franzis is an asylum patient is a fantasy. Evidence in favour of this: everything goes implausibly swimmingly for our hero in that section, from easily recruiting the asylum staff to finding (as Cairns puts it) “Caligari’s second cabinet, in which he keeps his entire backstory.” It’s a fun reading, even though it’s clearly a case of projecting an interpretation onto the film that wasn’t intended by the makers.

One that fits better, perhaps, is that Franzis’ flashbacks aren’t merely “the ravings of a madman”, but he’s telling the truth, and that somehow between the end of his flashbacks (which see Caligari locked up in his own asylum) and where we join the framing narrative (with Franzis locked in the asylum and Caligari in charge), the evil doctor has reasserted his authority and captured his accuser. Of course, that requires a leap — how does Caligari regain control? Why don’t we see it happen? Well, we don’t see it happen because that wasn’t what the makers intended.

Suspicious activity

And so we come back to “it was all a dream”. Maybe that’s the best explanation — the writers may’ve hated it, but in some respects it saves them from themselves: Cairns’ visual essay highlights a bunch of plot holes, inconsistencies, and confusions, not to mention issues of character motivations and actions (“in a way it makes no sense to speak of character motivation in a mad man’s fantasy”), all of which you can hand-wave away if “it was all a dream”. This is why I wondered if it was style over substance. The sets, the make-up, the performances — all fantastically atmospheric. The story, the characters, their actions — not such great shakes.

But maybe that’s okay. After all, why not? Director Robert Wiene and his crew did a fantastic job of bringing a surreal nightmare to life, and nightmares seldom feature plausible storylines.

4 out of 5

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.