(Das Wachsfigurenkabinett)

Paul Leni | Germany | 1924

2020 (Restored Version) Berlin, Bologna, Amplify UK

German expressionist cinema is perhaps as well known for its cast of infamous villains as for its unusual camera angles, deep shadows and warped impossible architecture. Paul Leni’s 1924 anthology horror Waxworks introduces its own gallery of rogues to stand alongside Dr Mabuse, De Caligari, the Golem and Nosferatu‘s Count Orlok. A young poet accepts a job at the titular fairground attraction, penning tales to bring its inanimate denizens to life. The film comprises three such tales, anchored by icons of German cinema. Emil Jannings (The Last Command, Faust, dons an enormous fat suit for a comic Arabian Nights inspired sojourn in which he’s a lecherous twinkle-eyed despot surrounded by aptly bulging buildings; Conrad Veidt (The Man Who Laughs) cuts a more drawn, angular figure as Ina the Terrible for a stark, brooding psychological drama in which his manner is as forbidding as the claustrophobic dungeons he inhabits; and Werner Krauss (Dr Caligari himself) appears as Jack the Ripper in a coda that plays as a dizzying thriller. Each section aesthetically embodies the villainy on show – benevolent tyanny, hard cruelty and sensational violence – and Leni deftly weaves the distinct tones into a work of impressive cohesion and uncanny potency.
– Ben Nicholson, Sight & Sound Winter 2020-21.

If Paul Leni, the expressionist painter and film-maker patterned the essence of his Waxworks on the title of his Das Kabinett des Dr Caligari, he did so deliberately, for he was to amplify, in his own playful manner and using a more skilful technique, the fairground ambience which had already proved so conducive to mystery. Leni was a designer and he knew what could be done for a film by variations in costume and setting. He was thus to adopt the formula Lang had chosen for Destiny: three episodes set in different periods and countries.

In Waxworks, Leni’s style which was to develop once he reached the United States, still had not crystallised. He went further than Lang had done in varying the elements to suit the ambience of each episode. The main action is set at night in a fairground booth. Tents with mysterious shadows, innumerable electric signs, the merry-go-round and a gigantic wheel turning in a welter of lights, the whole multiplied by the superimpositions which thread across the screen like spiders’ webs, show how far the German Cinema had come since the rather arid abstraction of the Caligari fairground. The third episode – in contrast with the two others which are simply interpolated into the narrative – continues the main action, the nightmare of a young poet who falls asleep instead of writing the story of the three wax figures.

The puffy dough-like settings in the episode of the baker’s wife are full of rotundities and cockled walls and seem to have no interior framing: the corridors, staircases (vaguely patterned on The Golem) and the soft, yielding arches seem to anticipate the creations of Antonio Gaudi. These sets are skilfully matched to the bloated physique of Jannings, whose face is depersonalized by a coarse make-up. Tricked out in an immense turban, his clothes padded and looking like some huge spinning-top, his Haroun Al-Raschid trundles his belly around a studio Orient. Kurtz very pertinently calls attention to a divergence in style: at times Jannings is the perfect Expressionist actor, but these times are in contradiction with the others in which his ‘psychological drollery’ is not far from Naturalism.

The Ivan the Terrible episode is set entirely in a misty chiaroscuro: specks of dust float in pools of light and there is a new Impressionism, softening the harshness of Expressionist contrast. Out of a half-light emerges an ornamental beam, a door, an icon and suddenly there looms up the glinting shell of a ceremonial bed.

Artchitectural detail in the first two episodes reveal Leni’s skill as a designer. The roundness of the oriental cupolas has a lively counterpart in the heavy turbans worn by the Caliph’s courtiers. When the town of Baghdad appears, all light transparent curves, it is flat like the diagrammatic town in Caligari, which has often been compared to the architecture in the paintings of Lyonel Feininger. Similarly the Russian cupolas, cones with no apparent structure, are purely and exclusively decorative elements; they appear everywhere, flanking the palace entrance, concealing a secret door in one of the rooms.

At the same time, Leni embraces the traditional idea of the heavy-beamed, low-ceilinged Russian cottage. Even in the Imperial palace it is necessary to stoop on account of the squat archways everywhere: the wedding guests in the Voivode’s hall seem overwhelmed and stifled by its massive proportions. One needs to grasp the full implications of this style. The low ceilings and vaults oblige the characters to stoop, and force them into those jerky movements and broken gestures which produce the extravagant curves and diagonals required by the expressionist precept. If the Expressionism in the caliph episode is confined to the settings, in the Russian episode it completely withdraws into the attitudes of the characters, as when the bloodthirsty Tsar and his counsellor move in front of a wall in carefully stylized parallel attitudes, with their trunks jack-knifed forward. A few years later Leni was to use the same attitude in The Man Who Laughs, made in America, when his King of England creeps down a corridor accompanied by a sadistic jester.

Throughout the Russian episode Leni strives after this movement restricting architecture. There are vaults and low doorways; there is also a narrow plunging stairwell, whose ominous walls make the lack of space even more stifling than before. Even the torture chamber in the vast palace is nothing but a steep staircase which gives the Tsar a clear view of his victims’ reactions. Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible shows the influence of the decorative stylization in Leni’s film. Eisenstein used Waxworks as a model, particularly in the disposition of the figures on the screen, and the way in which they are reduced to ornaments, their gestures frozen to the point of a carefully elaborated abstraction.
– Lotte H Eisner, The Haunted Screen, University of California: Berkeley Press, 1973.

The original German version of the film has not survived. Only shortened vintage prints of the English, French and Czech distribution versions are preserved. The film was digitized in 4K resolution and restored in 2K in a cooperation project between Deutsche Kinemathek and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna. The restoration is based on a tinted and toned 35mm vintage print on nitrate film held by the British Film Institute National Archive (BFI). Due to heavy decomposition of the print, parts of the film had to be taken from other film elements: a duplicate negative from the BFI and a vintage print from the Cinematheque Francaise. The text of the German intertitles is lost, therefore the English intertitles of the BFI print have been kept. Also the colouring corresponds to the colours of that print.
– Gary Tooze, DVDBeaver Blu-ray, 2020.

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