Paul Leni, the director of Waxworks (1924), was an Expressionist painter who had worked with Max Reinhardt as a set designer and poster designer for the cinema. The essence of Waxworks is said to be taken from the German title of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), "Das Kabinett Des Dr. Caligari”: the German title of Waxworks was “Das Wachsfigurenkabinett”. It was supposed to be a deliberate amplification of the fairground ambience, but with a more skilful technique.
The screenplay was written by Henrik Galeen, who had also done the scripts for Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Wegener’s The Golem (1920). Here, instead of one tyrant, Galeen gives us three tyrants, played by Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, and Werner Krauss. In three successive episodes based on the imaginations of a starving young poet after looking at past tyrants being exhibited in a houses of wax.
The film has been criticized as having a purely decorative style, but the imaginative depiction of tents with mysterious shadows, innumerable electric signs, the merry-go-round, and a gigantic wheel turning in a welter of lights, all of this multiplied by super-impositions which thread across the screen almost like a spider’s web, show how far the German cinema had come since the rather arid abstraction of the Caligari fairground. Lotte Eisner, discussing Leni in The Haunted Screen, remarks that the
architectural details in the first two episodes reveal Leni’s skill as a designer. The roundness of the Oriental cupolas has a lively counterpart in the heavy turbans worn by the caliph’s courtiers. When the town of Baghdad appears, all light transparent curves, it is flat like the little diagrammatic town in Caligari, which has often been compared to the architecture in the paintings of Lyonel Feininger.Leni himself went so far as to say,
For my film Waxworks I have tried to create sets so stylized that they evidence no idea of reality. All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines, and curves.Siegfried Kracauer (From Caligari to Hitler) observes that
Waxworks culminates in scenes which, exceeding their task of illustrating the plot, penetrate the nature of tyrannical pow3er. The insistence with which, during those years, pictorial imagination reverted to this subject indicates that the problem of absolute authority was an intrinsic concern of the collective mind.In this regard it is interesting that Sergei Eisenstein loosely used Waxworks as a model for some of his sets in Ivan the Terrible (1944).
Of special interest in Waxworks, is the celebrated “Jack-the-Ripper” scene which brings the tyrant-image to its most spectacular expression. Kracauer calls it “a very short sequence which must be counted among the greatest achievements of film art.”
Leni went on to direct successfully in America, notably The Cat and the Canary (1927), before he died in 1929.