“Your lack of clothes does not disturb me in the least!”
The owner of a waxworks show (John Gottowt) commissions a poet (William Dieterle) to write stories about three historical wax figures: Haroun the Caliph (Emil Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt), and Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss).
The career of German-born set designer and director Paul Leni was cut tragically short when he died of blood poisoning in 1929 at the age of 44, shortly after arriving in Hollywood and directing a highly regarded silent adaptation of The Cat and the Canary (1927). He’s perhaps best known for designing and directing this early Expressionist film, which unfortunately hasn’t held up nearly as well as the film upon which it was thematically and stylistically patterned (Robert Wiene’s cult favorite The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). While Leni’s art direction is consistently innovative, the script leaves much to be desired, shifting unevenly between three different storylines and never fully engaging us. The first episode — a semi-comedic fantasy tale set in Arabia, in which Dieterle plays a baker whose wife (Olga Belajeff) is seduced by a portly caliph (Emil Jannings) — is marginally involving, but one assumes even more will be forthcoming in future episodes. However, the second vignette — starring Conrad Veidt in a solid performance as a sadistic Ivan the Terrible — offers even less satisfaction, and the third story (presumably about Jack the Ripper, though his character is incongruously referred to via intertitles as “Spring-Heeled Jack”) is little more than a dream sequence lasting just a few minutes long. Waxworks remains worth a look for Leni’s creative vision, but is otherwise only must-see for silent film completists.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Fantastical Expressionist sets
No; this one is only must-see for silent film enthusiasts. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.