Harun Raschid, Ivan the Terrible, Rinaldo Rinaldini and Jack the Ripper

In probably the best condition it’s ever going to be seen, the Eureka Masters of Cinema 2019 restoration of Waxworks is a good 25 minutes shorter than the German original, all trace of which has disappeared. Instead, the Deutsche Kinemathek and Cineteca di Bologna took a surviving print from the British Film Institute and, using elements scavenged from around the world, put together this assemblage for a 2K restoration reinstating the original colour tinting. It’s a historically important film but also a vastly entertaining one, and if you’re a fan of German expressionism, it’s probably required viewing. 

The original German title, Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, is a clear nod to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, a blockbuster success from four years earlier. And in the tilting perspectives, the setting at a funfair and the presence of two of Caligari’s stars – Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt – there are more connections. 

Director Paul Leni is a more cinematic, less theatrical director than Caligari director Robert Wiene and you can see why this film got him his Hollywood ticket – fast edits, in-camera special effects, shifting visual perspectives, tight compositions and dramatic (ok, theatrical) lighting. 

It’s a portmanteau film and one quarter of it never got made – that’s why you can see bandit Rinaldo Rinaldini in that main picture above but he doesn’t appear in the film. But to the plot, in which a wax museum owner hires a writer (Wilhelm Dieterle, later, as William Dieterle, a Hollywood director of epics like The Hunch Back of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton) to dream up some new stories to help bring his waxworks to life. And off “the poet”, as he’s billed, goes, imagineering away in different scenarios, in each of which he’s accompanied by the waxworks owner’s comely daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), in tales of honest love under siege. 

First “the poet” is a baker and Eva is his wife, a woman so brimming with lust that when the baker kneads the dough, his wife responds as if he’s kneading her thighs. This obvious lustiness is something that the Grand Vizier has noticed, who tells Caliph Harun al Raschid (Emil Jannings), who then sets out to make a dishonest woman of the baker’s wife by seducing her. A gripping story told with dash.  

Ivan's death is foretold
Ivan’s death is foretold

In the second story Dieterle is a groom thrown into a dungeon by Ivan the Terrible (handsome, saturnine Conrad Veidt) who intends to have his way with the man’s new wife, all the while hoping to cheat fate by avoiding his own prophesied death. Veidt goes all out, overdoing the eyes (as he tended to do), in a foreshadowing of the boggly acting style perfected by Al Pacino.  

And on to the third, the story of Spring-Heeled Jack (aka Jack the Ripper, played by Caligari star Werner Krauss) as, with murderous intention, he pursues a young couple (guess who) through the streets of London. Here is where the bulk of the missing material most likely was, since this is a much shorter segment than the other two. As a sort of compensation it’s also the most overtly expressionist and filmic, much of it taking place on sets that are almost cubist in their wonkiness, with Leni layering one exposure over another to create an effect that’s almost Dali-esque in its surrealism. 

Throughout, the craftsmanship is superb, the lighting brilliant. Watching it now in this amazing restoration, considering the scrappiness of its sources, give us some idea of what it must have looked like when it debuted, sharp and crisp as a new banknote. 

Waxworks is usually ranked after Caligari in terms of importance, which is probably fair enough, but it’s a much better film. Better made, more filmic, more exciting. And even at this distance, with most of us detuned to the dramatics of movies of the silent era, it’s vastly watchable and extremely entertaining. 

Waxworks – Watch/buy the remarkable Eureka Masters of Cinema restoration at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

100 Years of… The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Caligari wakes up Cesare

Released in Germany in 1920 but not given an international debut until April 1921, in New York, German director Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has gone down in history as one of the most important films of the era, and the most important German expressionist film of all time. You can see its influence everywhere, in Citizen Kane, The Third Man and Shutter Island, to grab a trio of obvious borrowers, but though it’s much talked about, how many people have actually seen it?

What might come as a surprise 100 years on is that it didn’t meet universal acclaim at the time. Cultural historians still argue about whether it was a box-office hit or not. Critically, people at the time went both ways too, with film-makers of the calibre of Abel Gance (director of the epic Napoleon) loving it, while the likes of Russian genius Sergei Eisenstein declared it a dud.

Clouding the picture was the fact that the First World War had only recently ended and anti-German feeling was still running high in many countries.

Eisenstein, who did more than almost anyone to create a language of cinema, particularly hated Caligari‘s theatricality. He’s right. It looks like a theatrical piece, and is shot by Wiene as if he were recording a stage play rather than making a work of art in its own right. On top of that is the obvious theatricality of its sets, expressionist to an absurd degree, every angle wonky, barely a plumb line to be seen. Even the doors are triangular.

The actors, too, are from expressionist theatre, their performances pantomime exaggerations that bear no relation to “reality”. Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt are the key players, Krauss as the titular doctor, a carnival barker whose freakshow attraction is Cesare, a somnambulist who has been asleep in a box for the entirety of his 23-year-long life. That’s Veidt in heavy eye make-up and blanco face paint as the sleeper, who’d later be Bogie’s stiff nemesis Major Strasser in Casablanca but is here a lithe youth with the look of a ballet dancer.

Cesare with the abducted Jane

Theatrical sets? Just a bit

The plot is a whodunit, with Caligari and his sleeper somehow embroiled in a series of murders in the small town where their carnival is parked. The whole thing is set inside a framework as part of a story told by our narrator, Franzis (Friedrich Feher), and there’s a twist at the end that makes little impact on the enjoyment of the film, which comes from watching the mad sets and the amazingly florid over-acting of Krauss and his robotic somnambulant sidekick.

Fascinatingly, the credits claim it as “ein Film von” (“a film by”) Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, its writers. And it’s true that it was more their baby than the director’s – perhaps Eisenstein was suspicious about that too. But Robert Wiene has his moments, even though he works mostly in mid and long shots, throwing in the odd close-up of Caligari and Cesare to ramp up the sinister atmosphere when necessary.

Whatever else this is, it’s a very creepy film. That shot of Cesare hauling the sleeping beauty Jane (Lil Dagover) from her bed and carrying her off over the rooftops is brilliantly designed and executed – there were faintings in cinemas back in the day, apparently.

The version I watched, restored in 2014 with its original colour tinting, is in excellent shape. The first reel/act (of six) has been cobbled together from second-grade sources and is noticeably woolier looking than the rest of it, but once we’re on to reel two the image quality is exceptional. Though the restoration hasn’t removed every blemish, there is as much detail in the image as needed while the high contrast images – graded midtones aren’t this film’s thing – can be put down to expressionism’s love of the chiaroscuro.

Veidt and Krauss had a history of working together on films with sensationalist subject matter (their previous three outings had the titles Diary of a Fallen Woman, Opium and Prostitution) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is no exception. They’d go on to make a further seven films together, one of which alludes to Caligari in its original German title, Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, in English), another remarkable expressionist work and, though less groundbreaking and influential (nodding to Eisenstein), a much more filmic film.

The 2014 Kino restoration of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021