- Waxworks may not deserve a seat directly alongside Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921), but it stands as another shining example of Germany’s rich period of cinematic expressionism during the 1920s.
- Waxworks also features Emil Jannings (as Harun al Raschid) in his prime at the age of forty (40)- this is the same year as The Last Laugh.
- Like Destiny– it is an epic story told in three parts (clearly influenced by D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance). In Waxworks, a writer (William Dieterle- years before his solid work as a director) is hired by a museum and the writer puts himself and a young girl he has recently met into three stories: one about Harun al Rachid, one about Ivan the Terrible, and one about the era’s most important villain – Jack the Ripper (or Spring-Heeled Jack). Conrad Veidt (is probably best known for playing Major Heinrich Strasser in Casablanca– but he is also in Caligari) plays Ivan the Terrible.
- Heavy and inspired use of silent film tinting/coloring (especially some deep blues).
- The first section is the Baghdad set story with Jennings’ character. Very few actors could play evil as well as Jannings (he would play Mephisto in Faust just a few years after in 1926). Jannings had the technical skill to match any great actor—and a face built for silent film shortcut casting. He sort of resembles Jim Broadbent’s Harold Zidler character (or vice versa obviously with this coming out more than seventy-five years prior) in Moulin Rouge! Jannings’ section of the story is by far the longest.
- A gorgeous Mamma Roma/Pasolini last supper symmetrical Greenaway or Midsommar shot during the Russian Czar second section. In the same section, a giant hourglass is in the foreground with the Czar behind.
- One can see it coming a mile away- but there is just not enough time for the Jack the Ripper character. It is unclear as to whether this was the intention (I cannot believe it was) or there was some sort of time or financial reason the film is cut short, but it makes for a clear imbalance and poor form.
- There is, however, a montage of marvelous dissolves to end the film at the carnival (where the wax museum resides). This is German expressionism in the wake of Caligari– so there are these wondrously wonky tilted streets as the poet/writer and his girl sort of escape back to reality. The Jack character ends up coming back with them and then it turns out that it was not really a dream—the film do not seem sure- a miscue.
- The costume and décor owes much again to Caligari. The curved palm trees, angles of the sets and streetlights. When the baker is entering Jannings’ character’s home in the film he is flanked by this stunning expressionistic set design.
- In that same sequence there are five characters staged perfectly throughout the frame when the four followers of Jennings kneel.
- This is post Great War bleakness- the Czar watches his victim expire as the hourglass runs out.
- Highly Recommend / Must-See border
I watched this movie for my 1924 study, and it was a pretty nice surprise.
As a big fan of german expressionism, I was extremely pleased by Caligari-like scenery and imaginative shots.
From the performances Jannings easily gives the best one, but I would do anything to see more of Krauss. He is perfectly cast and those 60 seconds he was on the screen really didn’t do him justice.
Very solid HR.
Have you seen the new Adam McKay film Don’t Look Up? If you did see it, what did you think of it? I watched it a few days ago. It was better than i expected and the ending was genuinely emotional. I will note however that the editing was quite bad often.
I really liked this film. Beautiful set designs and some great visual compositions (I love the shot of the wax figure of Jennings lying on the bed with the baker at his side, ready to cut his arm). I think the Caliph’s story is the stronger one, but I would say both Jennings and Veidt are equally strong in their respective roles. The ending is kind of weird and awkward, I agree. Apparently there are about 25 minutes that are missing in the 81-minute version, which is the one I was able to find, so my guess is that maybe some of those missing minutes dealt with the Jack the Ripper section and that’s why the restored result feels so unbalanced, but I can’t know for sure. With that in mind (I can’t fault the film for being partially lost but I can’t assess what I haven’t seen either), I believe it’s a very strong film overall and a high recommendation for those who enjoy German Expressionism. I think I might like it more than Destiny, actually.