The poet arrives at the carnival at Luna Park, led there by an advertisement offering work at the waxworks where he is requested to write stories inspired by the exhibits, Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad, Czar Ivan Vasilyevich, known as Ivan the Terrible, the London serial killer Jack the Ripper, and the fictional character of Rinaldo Rinaldini, the Robber Captain.
Imagining himself in the lives of these people he sees himself as a pie-baker in Baghdad whose beautiful wife whom he pictures as the daughter of the waxworks proprietor is coveted by the Caliph, or as the betrothed of the daughter of a Russian noble, again the daughter of the proprietor, where her father is assassinated and the wedding of the weeping bride is presided over by the gloating Czar who was the intended target.
Visions of jealousy, madness and murder moving from his mind to the paper, the poet falls into his own illusion, he and the daughter pursued through the carnival by Jack the Ripper, a maze of dead-ends from which they cannot escape, the killer always just behind them and closing in…
Released in 1924, Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) was the final film created by director Paul Leni in his homeland of Germany before his departure for America where he would make such works as The Cat and the Canary and The Man Who Laughs, a fantastical anthology of dreams and nightmares now released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series.
Unable to complete the film as intended, the fourth section involving Rinaldo Rinaldini was never shot though the figure stands alongside the others in the introductory scene, and worse, the original print was lost in a fire, leaving only exported prints which were cut by approximately twenty five minutes, and it is this truncated version which has been reconstructed for Eureka’s Blu-ray of Waxworks.
A product of the German Expressionist school of cinema which also gave birth to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the images are bold and surreal, twisted organic passages and overpasses, the structure abstract and, particularly in the final sequence which is also the shortest, appropriately dreamlike, manifested in superimpositions of ghostly figures created through double exposures.
The original intertitles lost, it is the English translations which are extant, curiously renaming Jack the Ripper – clearly stated on his pedestal – as Spring Heeled Jack, a similar but distinctly different semi-mythical character, and Julia Wallmüller of the Deutsche Kinemathek provides details on what is known of the fuller version of the film and the complex restoration process and the different sources used to create an optimal composite of picture and colour.
Never lacking for silent spectacle, Waxworks is populated by many of the greats of German cinema, Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss as the Caliph, Ivan and Jack, with William Dieterle and Olga Belajeff in the recurring roles of the poet and the daughter, and on Eureka’s new edition film critic Adrian Martin provides historical and artistic context in his commentary while writer Kim Newman is interviewed about the evolution of the anthology film.