Waxworks [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Flicker Alley
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (20th November 2020).
The Film

A down-on-his-luck poet (Faust's William Dieterle) sees a newspaper ad looking for a creative mind to promote the figures at a carnival's wax museum with some lurid stories. He demonstrates his abilities by coming up with a story to explain how the wax figure of Harun al Raschid, caliph of Baghdad, lost his arm. Charmed by the proprietor's daughter Eva (Her Husband's Wife's Olga Belajeff), the poet envisages her and himself within the tale as the beautiful Zarah and her baker husband Assad. When the caliph (The Blue Angel's Emil Jannings) loses a game of chess to the Grand Vizier (The Spiders' Paul Biensfeldt), he attempts to maintain face by blaming the smoke billowing from the nearby oven of Assad, ordering the Grand Vizier to bring him the man's head. The Grand Vizier, however, is distracted from his task when he sights Zarah and enrages Assad by flirting with her. The Grand Vizier himself escapes punishment for failing to carry out his mission by interesting the caliph in Zarah's bewitching beauty; whereupon the caliph decides that night to dress up as a commoner to visit her in secret. Flattered by the Grand Vizier's attentions, Zarah expresses discontent with Assad who proclaims his intent to prove his manhood by stealing the caliph's wishing ring so that Zarah will want for nothing. The caliph overhears this and let Assad go so that he can seduce Zarah in the man's absence; however… this is the tale about how the caliph loses his arm, is it not? The poet then decides to mine more grisly territory by telling the story behind the figure of Ivan the Terrible (The Man Who Laughs' Conrad Veidt), Czar of Russia who delights in torture and cruelty, with one of his pastimes consisting of stealing into the Kremlin dungeons to watch prisoners draw their last breath times by way of a magical hourglass. All Ivan has to do is request that his poison-maker (Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache's Ernst Legal) write the name of an enemy on the glass and it is literally a "matter of time" before they die. With the power over life and death, however, comes great paranoia, and those under Ivan know that he could turn on them at any time. Suspecting an assassination attempt, Ivan switches places with a Boyar noble as a guest at his daughter's wedding. When the man his killed, he makes the daughter (Eva) his captive and consigns the groom (the poet) to the dungeons; however, Ivan soon learns that his own time may soon be up. Fancy gives way to terrifying reality, however, when the figure of Jack the Ripper (Tartuffe's Werner Krauss) comes to life and terrorizes the poet and Eva in the labyrinthine corridors of the museum. Will the pen be mightier than the stiletto?

Although direction is co-credited to producer Leo Birinsky, Waxworks was the film in which former Max Reinhardt acolyte and film production designer Paul Leni became identified with the cinematic form of German Expressionism, and the last feature film Leni would make in Germany before going to Hollywood where he further refined his techniques on the still-influential The Cat and the Canary and The Last Warning, and to a lesser extent on the big budget The Man Who Laughs. The film's anthology format allowed for Leni to showcase expressionism in its myriad forms, from the distorted sets of the Harun al Raschid episode and the rigid symmetry of the Ivan the Terrible tale – its compositions being heavily influential not only on the visual design of Sergei Eistenstein 's own Ivan the Terrible but also his writings on film composition – to the double exposures and spinning carousel imagery of the Ripper segment. A troubled production, the film does not come together as a cohesive whole with the uneven lengths of the stories – the first story eats up half the running time, Ivan the Terrible is considerably shorter, and the Ripper coda is just over five minutes – and the loss of a fourth story in which the poet himself would play gentleman robber Rinaldo Rinaldi (not the Italian sculptor but the hero of Christian August Vulpius’s 1797 "Penny Dreadful" novel). While Jannings, Krauss, and Veidt are given the spotlight, and Belajeff is given a more complex characterization as Zarah than in any of the other roles (including the "real life" version of her character), Dieterle is more than the bland straight man type; and it is easy to forget that the future director of such films as The Devil and Daniel Webster, Portrait of Jennie, Syncopation, , The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I'll Be Seeing You was a romantic leading man – among his early credits was Jean in Fräulein Julie – at the same time he was directing in Germany (having helmed fifteen films in the decade before he fled to Hollywood and starting out his American period with a stint at Warner Bros. and then RKO before being noticed by David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind). The film proved influential on a number of other waxworks-set horror films to come, including the like-titled segment of Amicus' The House That Dripped Blood, and of course the more fantastic Waxwork.


Released theatrically stateside by Film Arts Guild in 1926 but not until 1974 in the U.K. by collector/hoarder/exhibitor Raymond Rohauer, Waxworks first came to DVD in the United States from Kino on Video in 2004 from Rohauer's materials as restored by the Cineteca di Bologna. The restoration was derived from the film's English version which reportedly runs more than twenty-five minutes shorter than the German original. When the Deutsche Kinemathek in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna undertook a new 2K restoration, it was discovered that the English version was indeed the only surviving print material – the original German negative burned during a fire at a Paris customs office – with this restoration making use of a tinted dupe negative held by the British Film Institute with missing frames derived from a print held by the Cinémathèque Française (with tinting based on the BFI color scheme). The results are definitely superior, although still variable, with the use of contrasty lighting, fog, and smoke during the Ivan the Terrible segment as responsible as some nitrate decomposition; however, the restoration is quite an upgrade over the older DVD restoration. The restoration made its Blu-ray bow in Germany. Like the German disc, Flicker Alley's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray is region free. The U.S. disc is a joint effort with British label Eureka Video, so the video and audio encode is identical to the recently-released Blu-ray (the Eureka menus appear when the disc is played on a Region B player and the Flicker Alley menus appear on Region A players).


The Kino DVD featured a piano score by Jon C. Mirsalis while Flicker Alley's Blu-ray duplicates the options on the German Blu-ray: a mostly supportive, sometimes dull piano score by Richard Siedhoff, and a more creative but occasionally bombastic instrumental score by Ensemble Musikfabrik, both of which are offered in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 stereo options. Neither is fully recommended over the other, and some viewers may actually find themselves toggling between the two during the film. As with the German Blu-ray, the original intertitles are in English and there are optional subtitles in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.


Exclusive to the Flicker Alley and Eureka Blu-rays is an audio commentary by film and arts critic Adrian Martin who provides an overview of writing on the film by the likes of Siegfried Kracauer, Lotte Eisner, David Bordwell, and Henri Langlois, but is also of the opinion that it is too reductive to try to slot the film and Leni's efforts into the German Expressionist framework or the encroaching of Nazism on the creative freedom of the Weimer Republic. He suggests that the film in its expressionistic leanings is actually engaged in a dialogue with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (even noting the similarity of titles in that "waxworks" in English describes both the building and the figures while the German "wachsfigurenkabinett" refers to the building and that the "kabinett" is a signifier of its engagement with the earlier film. Martin also discusses Leni's career, the drawn-out pre-production on the film, and the Rinaldi story cut from the script of Henrik Galeen (Nosferatu) late in production when the money ran out (noting that the figure of Rinaldi remains on display but an explanatory intertitle is noticeably absent).

Most informative is "In Search of the Original Version of Paul Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett" (20:29), an interview with Julia Wallmüller of the Deutsche Kinemathek in which she discusses the restoration and their discovery that no materials survive for the German version. She has, however, been able to piece together some of the deleted material in the form of a Swedish intertitles list for an aborted release which reveals a meet cute scene for the poet and Eva, more dialogue between Eva and her father about the poet, the proprietor demanding something more gruesome for the Ivan the Terrible story after the lighter tone of the Harun al Raschid story, a more complex ending to the Ivan the Terrible segment than survives in the film, as well as context for some of the scenes used for double exposures in the Jack the Ripper story in the form of scenes repurposed for the more experimental montage. She notes that Jack the Ripper has been in the English version "Spring-heeled Jack" (an older British urban legend) even though it is obvious that the figure is meant to be the Ripper, and expresses puzzlement about the change. Since this version was prepared for British exhibition, one might note that the British censors prevented the name Jack the Ripper from being used in various film adaptations like the various film adaptations of "The Lodger" until the 1958 Baker & Berman film Jack the Ripper.

In "Kim Newman on Waxworks" interview (17:14), the author/critic discusses the film in the context of early cinema still trying to decide what a feature consisted of, as well as the early horror anthologies, and the film's influence on other waxworks-themed horror films. He also muses on the film's themes of the act of storytelling and embroidering history, with the Ripper segment as an early example of horror metafiction. Closing out the disc is Leni's animated "Rebus-Film Nr. 1-8" shorts (15:24) originally shown in two-parts before and after a feature. These shorts directed between 1925 and 1926 were Leni's only output between the release of Waxworks and his move to Hollywood and his American debut with The Cat and the Canary.


Housed with the disc is a 31-page collector’s booklet featuring "Paul Leni: A Career Cut Sadly Short" in which Philip Kemp contrasts Leni's experience with the studio system with that of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, while in "Waxworks: Three Times a Romance", Richard Combs discusses the film as the high point of German Expressionism but also as the last film in a "self-limiting cycle", and Julia Wallmüller in "Waxworks: The Restoration" discusses the specifics of the restoration in more detail than in her video interview, viewing notes, and Blu-ray credits. The contents of this booklet is identical to the Eureka booklet. It is also advertised as a limited element, but with no pressing number.


Ultimately the culmination of German Expressionism as a specifically German cinematic movement, Waxworks and its director Paul Leni still proved to be influential on the genre form even for many who might not have had an opportunity to see the film until its earlier restoration.


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