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The owner of a Waxmuseum needs for three of his models stories to be told to the audience. For that reason he has hired a writer, who after one look athe owner's pretty daughter, starts writing stories featuring the models, the daughter and himself. In the first, he is a baker, married to the girl, who is a little bit too much flirting with the customers, among them the wezir of sultan Harun Al-Rashid, who has just ordered his execution because the smell from the bakery is drifting to his palce, yet Harun Al-Rashid wants to meet the beautiful girl himself, while an angry baker is trying to get the Sultan's whishing ring to proof he's not a weakling... The second story is about Tzar Ivan the Terrible who likes watching people die together with his court-chemist. When he orders the execution of the chemist, the chemist thinks of a nice revanche, but till the revanche works, a nobleman is murdered, his daughter kidnapped by Ivan and her groom tortured. While writing the third story about... Written by
Stephan Eichenberg <email@example.com>
Paul Leni's Seldom-Seen Anthology Homage to Caligari
In the wake of World War I, German film was sharply influenced by expressionism, an arts movement which is less concerned with imitating reality than in using design to reflect psychology and emotion. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI brought the style to the screen in 1919, and throughout the 1920s many directors would create projects under its influence.
German director Paul Leni (1885-1929) was one such--and although he is best recalled for his later Hollywood films, most notably the stylish THE CAT AND THE CANARY, the 1924 German WAXWORKS shows him very near the peak of gifts. It is also very clearly an homage of sorts to THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI; not only would Leni cast two of that film's actors in major roles, he drew from the film's style for both sets and cinematography.
WAXWORKS is an "anthology" film, a collection of stories bound together by a running thread. A young writer (William Dieterle) is employed by a carnival sideshow wax museum to write stories about several of their figures: a Baghdad Caliph, Ivan the Terrible, and Spring Heeled Jack. As he writes, the film segues into the story the writer invents.
The longest of the three stories concerns Harun al Raschid, a Caliph of Baghdad who falls in love with a baker's wife--and then seeks to take her for his own. Featuring the celebrated Emil Jannings as the Caliph, the episode is a mixture of light comedy and Arabian Nights fantasy, particularly noted for the greatly stylized sets that recall the earlier CALIGARI and THE GOLEM to somewhat softer effect. It also offers the very rare opportunity to see Jannings, famed for his dramatic roles, in comic mode, and he proves equally adept with this bit of fluff as with his more "serious" work.
The second episode is a fantasy suggested by Russian ruler Ivan the Terrible, who delights in poisoning prisoners but finds himself fearful of his highly gifted poison-mixer. Ivan is played by Conrad Veidt, who appeared as the murderous Cesare in CALIGARI; one of Germany's most popular actors of the silent screen, Veidt was also noted for his gift at playing insanity, and his Ivan is the very incarnation of madness. As in the earlier episode, the sets are also fantastic, although perhaps not so obviously so.
Fine though the first two sequences are, it is really the last that is most famous, and justly so. Here Leni sets the story against the carnival itself and presents it in grotesque, dreamlike images that very deliberately recall CALIGARI; moreover, he casts actor William Dieterle, who played Caligari himself, as a menacing killer who slowly stalks his terrified victims. The killer is referred to as both Spring Heeled Jack and Jack the Ripper; clearly, however, he is more akin to the latter. The cinematography in this sequence is particularly fine, using multiple exposures in a way that foreshadows Leni's stylish THE CAT AND THE CANARY.
In an overall sense, WAXWORKS is quite fine, and were it not for the fact the final sequence is so short I would easily give it a full five stars. The Kino DVD also offers a very good transfer, complete with original tinting; unfortunately, however, it offers no bonus material except a Leni short--an unexpected but mildly interesting "filmed crossword puzzle." Although some may find the anthology nature of the film a bit off-putting, silent fans will likely love WAXWORKS from start to finish.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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