Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) has been called the first portmanteau horror film, in which three tales are told via a framing device, paving the way for such anthology films as Dead of Night (1945), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and Tales from the Crypt (1972).
Showing as part of the online Cambridge Film Festival in a digitally recombined and restored version, this silent German Expressionist classic is more fantasy than horror. Waxworks does not have the eerie power of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the 1919 trailblazer that featured similar sets and one of the same actors (Conrad Veidt), but it is more obviously aimed at entertaining its audience, with memorable star performances, flamboyant production design, striking technical effects and humour.
The film opens with a writer (William Dieterle) visiting a funfair, where he accepts a job offer from a waxworks showman to write stories about three of his exhibits: Harun Al-Rashid (Emil Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt) and Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss).
His first story transports us to the world of the Arabian Nights, in which Harun, the Capliph of Baghdad falls in lust with a baker’s wife (Olga Belajeff) and attempts to bed her while her husband (Dieterle) is on a mission to prove his manhood by stealing Harun’s wishing-ring.
In his introduction to Waxworks, composer and silent film accompanist Neil Brand claims that the film was a groundbreaker when it came to sex. The sensuous and alluring Belajeff admires herself in a mirror, provoking her baker husband to cup her breasts with his dough-kneading hands. “Your lack of clothes does not disturb me in the least,” Harun tells her later (via the English version’s titles), “my casket of honey.”
There are curves everywhere, from slipper-toes to the sickle-moon peaks of Baghdad’s buildings – pizza-oven mounds which, as Brand points out, reflect the Caliph’s fat body. His snake-charmer’s basket of a turban befits the ego of a man who has a different wife for every night of the year. And the climactic chase through Dali-esque tunnels and holes feels like we are inside some enormous organism.
Desert mounds become the onion domes of Moscow’s Kremlin in Waxworks’ second story, as the film’s mood changes from fairy-tale to nightmare. It features a chilling performance from Conrad Veidt as the sadistic Ivan the Terrible, whose mad staring eyes are like those of Rasputin. ‘Ivan was a blood-crazed monster on a throne,’ read the writer’s words, ‘who turned cities into cemeteries. His crown was a tiara of mouldering bones, his sceptre an axe. ‘His council-room was a torture chamber, with the Devil and Death as chief ministers.’
Waxworks’ last Jack the Ripper (or Spring-heeled Jack) segment is only six minutes long, but director Paul Leni crams it with visual effects such as superimposed images and ghostlike hologram characters, as a knife-wielding killer (Krauss) pursues the writer and his girl through wonky scenery and zigzag shadows. It all feels a bit rushed but reflects the fact that Leni ran out of time and money and had to drop a story in the script about the film’s fourth waxwork, Rinaldo Rinaldini, the Robber Captain.