Scary Stories to Tell in the Wax Museum: Paul Leni’s Waxworks and the Transition Away from Expressionism

The style of film known as German Expressionism was fashionable in the medium for less than five years in the late teens and early twenties of last century, but its influence is still felt today. Beginning with the release of the first true horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in 1919, the Expressionist mode of filmmaking leaned heavily on stylization, projecting the twisted interior worlds of characters onto their surroundings. These worlds often involved painted backdrops standing in for real sets, with buildings leaning at impossible angles, looming over tortuous city streets and dark alleys; the acting style seen in such films may look overly histrionic to our eyes today, but it is intentionally so: each emotion a character has is felt to the highest degree, and is expressed with commensurate ardor. Georgia Tech professor JP Telotte reminds us too that Expressionism is not limited to the visual, as, on a narrative level, themes of disaffection, mendacity, and insanity abound in these films and their predecessors in other arts (Telotte 16). The brief Expressionist wave that began with the end of the War to End All Wars crashed as all waves must, and in spectacular fashion with Paul Leni’s 1924 film Waxworks.
A classic example of an Expressionist tendency towards narratives revolving around some sort of show, Waxworks presents a sort of dark inversion of the old Shakespearean adage “all the world’s a stage”; often in Expressionist films, and especially in Waxworks, we are seeing the interior made exterior, a subject’s mind (generally carrying trauma from the First World War and its aftermath) is usually the only point of view the audience shares. Our protagonist’s world becomes a “stage” only through our intrusion into their mind, laying bare all the ugly truths about their inner life. But unlike the ambiguous mental illness for which the protagonist is locked away in the earlier The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the writer’s mind in Waxworks is presented as not only perfectly sane but brimming with imagination: he even fancies that one of the wax figures comes to life and (in the most visually-stunning sequence of the film) attacks! Telotte’s interpretation of Waxworks leans heavily on principles of spectatorship. He treats each episode in turn, noting how the subjects (in each case one of the wax figures and a couple played, in the writer’s imagination, by the writer himself and the daughter of the wax museum’s proprietor) all attempt to take up and maintain positions where they are observing others, rather than being observed. For the powerful men depicted in the first two episodes, Caliph of ancient Baghdad Haroun Al-Raschid and Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible, the reversals of power that take place are especially harrowing, dragging those despots down to the level of commoners as they are overtaken by their darkest fears and desires (Telotte 21-4). Their stories have the potential to thrill and instruct both the fairgoers in the wax museum and us as the audience in the theater as they explore the corrupting nature of power; it is the only major failing of Leni’s film that he chose to turn this setup into a purely aesthetic exercise.
From this perspective, Waxworks represents a rejection of certain ideologies shared by earlier Expressionist artists, who used the interiority inherent to the aesthetic to essentially X-ray society, using those darkest fears and desires to show the world its own true face. Leni’s film holds no such seriousness of purpose, instead using the principles of the Expressionist mode in what German critic Jürgen Kasten calls a purely “decorative” manner. He continues: “This comes as no surprise in view of the aesthetic development of German cinema and other art forms until 1923. The late completion of the film, and a further one-year delay until its première in 1924, would have all but destroyed any chance for a purely expressionistic film to have a commercial impact” (Kasten 183). Further, the several exotic locales of the story were certainly attractive to Leni, who cut his teeth in the film industry designing sets (Elsaesser 234). By 1924, Expressionism was already becoming passé as it had before WWI in other arts. German film historian Thomas Elsaesser contends that films like Waxworks and Ernst Lubitsch’s earlier The Wild Cat (1921) should be seen as parodies of the form and its rapidly desiccating tendency toward over-stylization (Elsaesser 63-4). Especially given the satirical elements in the first episode presented in Waxworks, we can see that Leni was less influenced by the social commentary of his contemporaries than he was by the visual freedom of the genre.
Waxworks is unevenly split into three different episodes, each presenting a wildly different aesthetic and anchored by bombastic, idiosyncratic performances by three different leads. The film opens on a young writer who, after finding his way through a crowded fairground, enters a wax museum with a classified ad in hand, seeking employment. Engaged to write stories to go along with the museum’s displays of some of history’s most evil personalities, he imagines himself first as a baker, living with his beautiful wife in Ancient Baghdad near the residence of Caliph Haroun Al-Raschid, the first model in the wax museum; a rare “comedic” role for larger-than-life actor Emil Jannings (who later became a Nazi and here represents the whitewashing common to early film history, German or otherwise), the Caliph passes his days with women, food, and a game of chess. With set design that reflects both the Caliph’s portly frame and the fluffy breads produced by the baker, Leni’s vision of Ancient Baghdad succeeds much more in representing the fruit of our protagonist-writer’s imagination than it does in any sense of accurate historical depiction.
The film’s second episode takes on a more somber tone, shifting to Medieval Russia during the reign of Ivan IV, the first Russian Czar and better known as Ivan the Terrible (played by Conrad Veidt, who had starred previously in the above-mentioned The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari). The airy interiors of Baghdad are gone, replaced with low ceilings in claustrophobia-inducing chambers that provide a visual echo to the Czar’s ever-increasing paranoia; while the rounded buildings of the previous episode are nowhere to be seen, we can glimpse their echoes in the opulent cupolas of the Czar’s palace and, more ominously, in the over-sized hourglasses Ivan forces his torture victims to stare at, the falling grains of sand representing the slow draining of their lives as his poison does its work. Such continuity subtly reflects Leni’s visual genius as he seamlessly incorporates Expressionism with other stylistic elements in multiple ways throughout the film, pointing to the future of the dying genre: “the future of both the conventional and the artistic film,” Kasten writes, “was a realistic or near-realistic design to which, occasionally, fantastic elements would be added through special preparation or camera work” (Kasten 184). Kasten’s use of the word “fantastic” here is particularly apt, as most of Waxworks does take place in a world of fantasy, only mixing the real and the unreal in its unfortunately short final episode.
When the writer dozes off over his compositions, the final wax figure, called Spring-Heeled Jack or Jack the Ripper depending on the version of the film (in either case played by the other star of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Werner Krauss), comes to life to terrorize the writer and the museum proprietor’s daughter once again. As Jack chases the lovers through the streets we see the entire fairground come to life at once, with several different attractions superimposed over each other. What this kaleidoscopic flurry of images ends up evoking, as the writer wakes up just before Jack strikes a killing blow, is the last exuberant gasp of Expressionism proper; the legacy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the war that inspired the movement’s transition from the other arts to film, though interesting fodder for both dramatic and aesthetic practice, is (naively) treated as a thing of the past, the stuff of nightmares and scary stories. As Kasten sums it up: “Not only have the tyrants lost their potential to evoke fear and terror in a kind of ironic alienation effect, but also the night, a frightening symbol of horror where psychopathic tyrants populate the narrow alleyways, has once more been reclaimed by lovers and their activities – even if they only entertain each other with scary tales of horror” (Kasten 182). With Waxworks, Leni produced a masterwork of an Art Film but his commitment to aesthetics over politics prevented a truly good film from being great.

Works Cited

Elsaesser, Thomas. Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary. Routledge, 2000.

Kasten, Jürgen. “Episodic Patchwork: The Bric-à-Brac Principle in Paul Leni’s Waxworks.” Expressionist Film – New Perspectives, edited by Dietrich Scheunemann, Camden House, 2003, 173-186.

Telotte, J.P. “German Expressionism: A cinematic/cultural problem.” Traditions in World Cinema, edited by Linda Badley, R. Barton Palmer, and Steven Jay Schneider, Rutgers University Press, 2006, 15-28.

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