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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Waxworks (1924)
(2020 2K Restoration)


Starring: Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, William Dieterle and Olga Belajeff
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £15.65


Certificate: PG
Release Date: 09 November 2020

Think of Eureka’s 4K foundation print as having quite a bit more detail (pixels) than 2K resolution, giving one a much bigger canvas to work with. If you want to restore a film, you have to paint out scratches etc. frame by frame. The more detail you have the better you can do it.  Also think about how imperfections become more visible if one enlarges an image. On the other hand, if one reduces an image in size, imperfections become hardly visible.  So, if one fixes a scratch pretty well on a large 4K image, it will be hardly visible when it is reduced to a smaller, 2K (Blu-ray) image. That’s basically the reason they like to do all visual effects (and restoration related to the process of VFX) on images that have a higher resolution than the resolution of the final output/product - it looks much cleaner. This is also Eureka’s way of readying the film for higher resolution players which will be the market status quo of the future. This disc will play to ultimate lucence on the higher grade player and screen you don’t own yet. Special Blu-ray has 4K resolution. In any variant, Blu-ray is used for the distribution of a final film to the public. It is compressed so it can store an entire film. Blu-ray is for consumers and gives us a great viewing experience. 

To do this classic film justice I advise seeing two of the Eureka Special Features first. “In Search of the Original Version of Paul Leni’s Wachsfigurenkabinett “ essayed by master film scholar and arch archivist, Julia Wallmüller, (Deutsche Kinemathek) who helmed the restoration premiered at Cinema Ritrovoato Festival in Bologna in 2020. She details the due diligence spent over six years of discovery, assemblage and technological engineering crossing borders and cooperating film treasuries. Highest praise must go to BFI and Cinémathèque Française for their 4K heavy baseline contribution, indeed we wouldn’t have the classic today but for these august institutions of cinema. For their work we are gifted with one of the finest cinematic gems of German expressionism.

“Kim Newman on Waxworks” sets a historical perspective on the legacy this film gives us for fantasy films and the house of wax genre that persists through generations. Both these essays will uncleave the viewer from confusion over missing footage, name changes, alternate spellings and tonal and coloratura variants arising from different source elements and, most importantly, an unrealized fourth panel in the story line. The film is then allowed to work its timeless magic and take us on a visually mad and often humorous ride, equally timeless.

Whenever film noir docents speak of rootage of that genre in German expressionist cinema, Leni’s masterpiece is foundational. A timeless film shot in 1924 is worth savouring. This one was so impressive for Carl Laemmle he invited Leni to Universal in Hollywood where he would give us The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928). Leni’s death in 1929 can only leave us wondering what he would have done with the early sound classics of the Universal Horror series. The Leni Dracula and Frankenstein, for instance.

Two music scores are available, a piano composition by Richard Siedhoff and an instrumental score by Ensemble Musikfabrick. I started out with the ensemble but switched to the Siedhoff. The ensemble seemed too busy and carried away with itself. Siedhoff gave me a feeling of what millions of viewers must have felt before. Simple, direct, a piquant servant of the image. But that’s just me.

A hungry writer/poet applies for a job in the want ads. “Wanted - an imaginative writer for publicity work in a waxworks exhibition.” Oh, those were the days. William Dieterle is the young poet. He too would migrate to Hollywood and be known for his impassioned characterization and dexterous choreography of massive crowds and Homeric space evidenced in Juarez (1939) The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) Tennessee Johnson (1942) Duel in the Sun (1946, uncredited but it’s his) and Portrait of Jennie (1948).

The owner of the wax museum (Paul Biensfeldt) asks the poet to create backstories for three of the museum’s most notorious figures: Caliph Harunmal-Rashid (Emil Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt) and Jack the Ripper, occasionally nicknamed “Spring-Heeled Jack” (Werner Krauss). I like Spring-Heeled Jack, myself.

“Can you write startling tales about these wax figures?”

Of course he can, with an enchanting love story central to each. The inspiration is smiling at him over her father’s head. The master’s daughter (Olga Belajeff) and the poet find immediate attraction and his tales centre on their love affair thrice times over. Other primary actors take different roles which unfold in succession with each nefarious wax villain conspiring to threaten the lovers.

Harunmai-Rashid’s arm just broke off. How did that happen? The poet prepares to tell us. Leni’s dissolves carry us into the characters. Eros palpable. Light-hearted, laughter expected in 1924 and today.

In a fabulous hive of twisting tunnels and escape holes, art direction (Leni, the sure-handed master of autorenfilm “author cinema”) evokes Escher but more, the entire Weimar expressionist movement back to Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr, Caligari (1919) evoking both homage and parody. Of course Hitler would despise it in favour of kammerspiel, the everyman realism that displaced the dream logic or illogic of expressionism). Contrast and resolution is a palette of shadows. Details within the darkness is the test here. Considering this was probably shot with a hand crank camera, (Helmar Lerski) locked down on tri-pod, the lyrical end result is mesmerizing.

How does the Caliph lose his hand? Does he get it back? No spoilers from me. Suffice it to say, the poet has the last word.

Onward to Ivan the Terrible, “a blood crazed monster on the throne, who turned cities into cemeteries. His crown was a tiara of mouldering bones, his sceptre an axe. The council room was a torture chamber, with the Devil and Death as chief ministers.”

Ivan gloats over the death of his poison victims, utilizing the Czar’s personal poison mixer. Where the first episode had humour and whimsical frivolity, the second is horror. Ivan uses large hour glasses to time his victims’ deaths. Even the Czar trembles. Always be on good terms with the poison mixer. His laboratory presages twentieth bio-weaponry. Veidt as Ivan is a total text book of face and eye acting. He is a walking nightmare. Conrad Veidt is the greatest actor of the Twentieth Century. There, I said it.

This time the lovers are bride and groom. The Czar is murdered. Ivan is in charge. The groom is sent to the torture chamber. Ivan has drunk his own poison. “How long have I to live?” he shudders. “Until the last grain of sand falls from the glass.” Ivan shouts at the great globe of sand telling it to stop. Then he turns the hour glass. A moment of glee. But... which way? Ivan believing he had been poisoned goes mad turning the glass up and down.

Last, and briefest is Spring-Heel Jack, a.k.a. Jack the Ripper. The poet’s maiden is being stalked. It is a carnival. Pleasure rides merge into chiaroscuro deviance. Caligari is most at home in this art direction. The poet stands in her way and takes Jack’s blade. But, awakening, it was a dream. Isn’t everything?


John Huff

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