This silent German film is one of the first — if not the first anthology films, as it tells multiple stories comprising fantasy adventure, history and horror. The connecting story is about a writer accepting a job from a waxworks proprietor to write a series of tales about the exhibits in his wax museum, which include Harun al-Rashid, Ivan the Terrible and Jack the Ripper.
As a love of portmanteau, it’s a thrill to see this film, which influenced Dead of Night and Black Sabbath, two movies that are thought to be the start of the horror anthology genre. And in the words of someone who knows way more about movies than me — Troy Howarth — “Of all the later horror anthologies, it seems to have had the most direct effect on Amicus’ Torture Garden, which reused the waxworks motif.”
There’s also a moment in the Ivan the Terrible story where the writer claims that the conquerer turned cities into cemeteries, which made me smile and say, “They will make cemeteries their cathedrals and the cities will be your tombs.”
The film has a great cast with plenty of history, including:
Emil Jannings, the first — and only German — recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actor for his roles in The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. A fictional version of him appears and dies in Inglourious Basterds, which is fitting as Jannings’ career ending after appearing in Axis propaganda films. He plays Harun al-Rashid from the Arabian Nights.
Conrad Veidt, who plays Ivan the Terrible, is probably best known for playing somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and as the villain in The Man Who Laughs, which inspired the Joker. He was also a powerful medium and occultist in real life who finally went to Hollywood where he appeared in Whistling in the Dark, All Through the NIght, Abobe Suspicion and Casablanca.
Werner Krauss, who is both Jack the Ripper and — spoiler — Spring Heel Jack, was called the man of a thousand faces, the greatest actor of all time and a demonic genius, which is probably the most fitting description, as he was an unapologetic antisemite who supported the Nazi Party.
William Dieterle, who plays the writer, would come to America and make The Life of Emile Zola, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as movies like the film noir films The Accused and Dark City.
John Gottowt, the waxworks owner, also played Professor Bulwer, the Van Helsing role in Nosferatu. As a Jewish man, he was kept from making movies when the Nazis took over. He was murdered in 1942 by an SS officer when his disguise as a Roman Catholic priest was discovered.
Speaking of Nosferantu, this movie has the same writer, Henrik Galeen.
Co-director Paul Leni would make it to Hollywood, where he’d direct the second Charlie Chan movie, The Chinese Parrot, as well as The Man Who Laughs. The other director, Leo Birinsky, would go on to write and direct Flirtation, a precode film about the romantic adventures of a burlesque dancer.
The version that played Fantastic Fest has the score interpreted by PRD Mais, “a collection of young and talented percussionists who combine the rich musical heritage of Brazil with an innovative mindset shaped by a limitless range of contemporary influences.”
Fantastic Fest @ Home is featuring a series of silent films reimagined with the music of five artists from GroundUp music. Beyond this film, there’s also Aelita: Queen of Mars with a score by Snarky Puppy’s Chris Bullock, Sirintip rescoring The Lost World, PRD Mais taking on Waxworks, Bob Lanzetti covering Nosferantu and House of Waters playing music for Menilmontant, Le Voyage dans la Lune and Ballet Mecanique.