A young author (Wilhelm Dieterle) is hired by the owner of a wax museum to write tales about his most popular figures, Haroun al Raschid, Ivan the Terrible and Jack the Ripper. Entranced by his new boss’s pretty daughter (Olga Belajeff) the author sets to work writing about the wax figures. With each new story, the author and his new friend find themselves pulled inside the progressively nightmarish worlds that he has invented.
Travel tip: When in Germany, avoid carnivals.
While not as well known in America as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu, Waxworks is one of the more brilliant entries in the canon of German silent film. Every bit as stylish as its more famous cousins, the film is a blend of artistry, fairy tale and good old-fashion thrills, plus set design to die for.
Waxworks also boasts an impressive cast and crew. Three of Germany’s best actors—Conrad Veidt, Emil Jannings and Werner Krauss— played three contrasting tyrants. Direction and art direction were handled by Paul Leni, an artist and designer-turned film-maker and one of the most creative German directors of the period. The scenario was provided by Henrik Galeen, whose other writing credits included scenarios for The Golem and Nosferatu.
At its core, Waxworks reflected German filmmakers’ fascination with and fear of tyranny during the first part of the 1920s. The films proved prophetic about tyranny and violence. Within a few years, the German people would be experiencing both for themselves.
“WANTED- An imaginative writer for publicity work in a waxworks exhibit”
An author (Wilhelm Dieterle) arrives at a carnival in response to the newspaper advertisement. After being given a tour of the waxworks tent, and noticing that the proprietor’s daughter (Olga Belajeff) is quite pretty, he accepts the job.
There are three wax statues that need stories to go along with them: Jack the Ripper, Ivan the Terrible and Haroun al Raschid. Noticing that the statue is missing an arm, the author gets to work explaining how it came about.
Dispatch the smoke maker to Allah!
As the author begins to write, the room fades into an Arabian Nights city. The author has become Assad, a poor baker, and the girl has become his lovely wife Maimune.
As Assad bakes bread, the smoke from his chimney wafts up onto the roof of the royal palace where Haroun al Raschid (Emil Jannings) is playing chess. The timing could not be worse since the sultan has just lost a game and he is in a bad temper. The sultan sends his vizier to kill the baker. However, before the vizier can strike, he catches a glimpses of Maimune, who is looking coyly out the window. Knowing the sultan’s taste for beauty, the vizier hurries off to tell his master.
Meanwhile, Assad is angry at Maimune’s flirtatiousness and they have a fight. In exasperation, Assad says that he will steal the sultan’s magic wishing ring to prove that he is a man. Maimune does not take him seriously and he storms out. As Assad leaves, the sultan slips inside the house. Maimune thinks it is her husband returning to apologize and is frightened to see the sultan. He calms her fears and waits for an opportunity to make his move.
Assad steals into the palace and into the sultan’s bedroom. He sees a figure asleep on the bed and approaches to steal the ring. It does not come off. Panicking, Assad chops off the hand and makes a frantic escape through the dark, nightmarish streets with the sultan’s guards just behind him.
The sultan is still flirting with Maimune when they hear Assad banging on the door. The sultan panics and begs Maimune to hide him. The only place big enough is the oven so the sultan squeezes inside. Assad breaks into the room and confesses that he has killed the sultan. Maimune knows that is impossible but then guards arrive and start to arrest Assad. The sultan whispers through the oven door that Assad must have cut the arm from the wax dummy he keeps in his bed when he is out for the night.
Maimune grabs the wax arm and makes a wish with the faux magic ring: that the sultan come out alive and unharmed. The sultan tumbles out of the oven. She then wishes that Assad be made the royal baker. All seems to be forgiven and the sultan embraces the baker and his wife.
“His council room was a torture chamber, with the Devil and Death as chief ministers”
Back in the wax tent, the writer is pleased with his work and immediately begins to write his story for Czar Ivan the Terrible.
The scene changes to the cellars beneath the Kremlin. The Czar (Conrad Veidt) and his chief astrologer are creeping toward the Czar’s poison room. The poison mixer has just finished administering a dose to a prisoner. To Ivan’s delight, the prisoner dies just as the last grains fall to the bottom of a large hourglass.
Ivan is thrilled with the poison mixer’s work but the astrologer warns that the Czar may fall victim to his talents. Enraged, Ivan orders the poison mixer killed but before he dies, he manages to write Ivan’s name on a large hourglass and turn it over.
Later, the Czar receives a nobleman as a guest. The nobleman reminds Ivan that he promised to attend his daughter’s wedding. Ever suspicious, Ivan exchanges clothes with the father of the bride and they set off together in a sleigh. When they are nearly at their destination, the sleigh is set upon by assassins and the man in the Czar’s robes is shot full of arrows.
Meanwhile, the happy wedding party is shown. The author is the groom while the girl is the bride. They hear the sleigh approaching and rush out to meet the Czar and her father. The bride is hysterical at finding her father dead but the Czar came for a party and he is determined to have one. He forces all the guests to dance and, when the bride slips away to cry over her father, he has her abducted. When the groom protests, he is taken too.
Back at the Kremlin, the Czar wants to make the bride his mistress and begins to torture her husband when she refuses. She is about to give in when the astrologer bursts into the room with news. The poison mixer’s hourglass has been found with Ivan’s name written on it.
Ivan stares at the hourglass in terror as the sands fall. First he pleads with it and then he has an idea. He turns the glass over to keep the sands from emptying. As the bride and groom slip away, he turns the hourglass again and again, laughing at how he has cheated death. The story leaves the laughing Ivan and returns to the writer at the carnival.
Even more pleased with his work, the author begins to think of what he will write about Spring Heeled Jack or Jack the Ripper, the names are used interchangeably to mean the same character in the film.
“Spring Heeled Jack- the notorious character- pounced suddenly and silently upon his victims.”
The author is horrified to see Jack (Werner Krauss) in the tent with him. Grabbing the girl, he runs but Jack follows. The author and the girl run through a nightmare version of the carnival and Jack always seems to be just behind them. Finally, he catches up to them and stabs the author through the heart.
The author wakes up and realizes that in his sleep, he poked himself with his pen. He and the girl laugh about it as the film closes.
Waxworks is an excellent example of German cinema made at the time when the country was at its peak of cinematic artistry. From a technical standpoint, the film is a marvel. The set design by Paul Leni is one moment opulent, the next expressionistic and always fascinating. Clearly influenced by both Caligari and Nosferatu, Waxworks is nonetheless an exceptional in its own right.
The film is helped immeasurably by its cast. Wilhelm Dieterle was a capable leading man but, as it turned out, his real talent was as a director. He served as assistant director for Waxworks and, credited as William Dieterle, would go on to direct such classic Hollywood crowd-pleasers as The Hunchback of Notre Dame(1939), Kismet (1944), and A Portrait of Jennie (1948). He was also one of the numerous uncredited directors of David O. Selznick’s infamous Duel in the Sun (1946).
While Werner Krauss was eerie and Emil Jannings was delightfully hammy, Conrad Veidt gave the standout performance as Ivan the Terrible. As usual with his best roles, he disappeared into the character. At well over six feet tall, he was a physically imposing presence. The low ceilings of the Kremlin set and the long robes he wore exaggerated his height further. His final scene, in which he obsessively rotates the hourglass to delay his own death, is believable and stylized at once.
Waxworks is an examination of tyranny in three parts. The fourth episode about Italian highwayman Rinaldo Rinaldini was scrapped due to budget constraints.
The Haroun al Raschid episode was a mockery of tyrants and their behavior: sometimes capricious, magnanimous, cruel or childish, depending on their mood. It was used as contrast against the far more frightening Russian episode, showing the cruelty and lusts of a despotic madman. The third story was meant to show that tyranny survived to the modern day. For further information, check out Siegfried Kracauer’s history of German cinema From Caligari to Hitler.
On a side note, it has been suggested that the Haroun al Raschid episode influenced Douglas Fairbanks to make The Thief of Bagdad. This is impossible since The Thief of Bagdad premiered in February of 1924 while Waxworks did not receive its German release until November of the same year and was not released in America until 1926. However, if you really want the plot to get twisty, The Thief of Bagdad was remade in 1940 and starred Waxworks‘ own Ivan, Conrad Veidt.
Finally, it has been suggested that Sergei Eisenstein’s own Ivan the Terrible films were stylistically influenced by Waxworks. The more I watch Eisenstein’s work, the less I believe that this is the case. Eisenstein and Leni both drew from the same well of historical costumes, buildings and behavior. While Nikolai Cherkasov’s Ivan is highly stylized, Eisenstein’s direction of performers had been heading in that direction for years.
If anything, the Ivan the Terrible films show more than a little Disney in their blood. Both Eisenstein and composer Sergei Prokofiev (who scored the film) were devotees of the House of Mouse. The dance of the Oprichniki and Fyodor Basmanov’s song in particular show a rather Disney-ish vibe, albeit twisted.
While Waxworks is not nearly as influential as you may have been led to believe, it is still absolutely marvelous and one of the gems of German cinema. Essential viewing.
Where can I see it?
Waxworks is available on DVD from Kino. The toned print is quite lovely and the film is accompanied by an absolutely delightful piano score from Jon C. Mirsalis. In fact, it is one of my all-time favorite silent film scores.