Monday, 16 May 2016

A light in the museum… Waxworks (1924), with Stephen Horne, Barbican

This was the last screening in the Barbican’s season of Weimar expressionist films (as opposed to films that are just very expressive…) with Stephen Horne, introducing as well as playing, quoting Lotte Eisner’s later-life conviction  that there were only two fully-fledged expressionist films - Von morgens bis mitternachts, and Caligari – along with the third segment of this film which, as Stephen promised, was well worth the wait!

As the Sun cracked the flags in the Barbican’s concrete courtyards, a substantial audience clearly preferred silence to shining as we gathered at the Centre’s lowest point: The Pit cinema.

Olga charmed by Emil
Waxworks was directed by Paul Leni who subsequently made The Cat and Canary, The Man Who Laughs and others in Hollywood. It is one of the first portmanteau horror/fantasy films with three stories all contained in a framing sequence set in a house of wax.

Leni recruited three of the Weimar’s leading men: Jannings, Veidt and Krauss who were respectively, corpulent, terrible and cutting!

Luna Park
A fairground – Luna Park – a whirl of double-exposed rides and lights, a young poet (William Dieterle) paper in hand, looking to respond for an advert for “an imaginative writer for publicity work in a waxworks exhibition”. He arrives at The Panopticum, a booth run by an elderly showman (John Gottowt) and his young daughter Olga Belajeff.

“Can you write startling tales about these wax figures?” asks the Showman before introducing his milky-faced cast of characters: Spring Heeled Jack (Werner Krauss), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt) and Haroun-al-Raschid, Caliph of Bagdad (Emil Jannings). Seeing the Caliph’s detached arm, the poet decides to write a story of how he came to lose his limb… the camera flicks out of focus and we’re in a wonderful, cartoonish Arabia looking on a paper-mache palace and plastic palm trees.

Assad canoodles with Zarah
The poet casts himself as Assad the Baker with the showman’s daughter as his wife – Zarah – one of the most beautiful women in the city not already married to the Caliph (he has a wife for every day…). The baker bakes and makes eyes at Zarah whilst the Caliph is pampered on the roof of his palace losing, badly, at chess. Distracted by the smoke from the baker’s oven the Caliph, perfectly reasonably, sends his Grand Vizier and his men to kill the baker but when they arrive they are distracted by Zarah’s beauty…
The Caliph's Palace is almost like a living thing...
The Caliph decides to investigate this woman for himself whilst Assad, forced to prove his manhood after Zarah realises that if she can catch the Grand Vizier’s eye she could do better, heads off to the palace to steal the Caliph’s magical Wishing Ring…

Cue a masterclass in kingly carousing from the protean Jannings, fleshy-grotesque in heavy padding, over-weighted turban and wicked moustache… he smiles, he gurns he licks his lips but he has charm enough to stop Zarah – and the audience – from running. Can Assad complete his task and keep his head and his wife? Have you read the Arabian Nights?

Next up the Poet turns his gaze towards Ivan the Terrible and a far more sinister tale ensues as Conrad Viedt’s Czar exhibits a sinuous delight in watching the grains of sand count down his tortured victims’ last seconds of life as they pass from chamber to chamber in his hourglass. It’s a horrible concept that perfectly encapsulates his silicon psychopathy.

Time waits for no man
But Ivan trusts no one, not even his poisoner-in-chief, who he has hunted down and killed but not before the man can write his master’s name on the terrible timer. Ivan is unaware as he continues his abuse of his subjects – terrible and not at all awesome in this context. When he does find out his solution reflects the tortured hyper-paranoia you hope haunts every psychotic despot – those to come and those passed.

The long day closes with that Eisner-authenticated expressionist sequence in which Spring-Heeled Jack comes to life and pursues the young couple in shadows and light as Leni let’s rip with every trick from the expressionist cookbook! Conrad Veidt’s sunken-cheeked ferocity aside, it is the film’s most genuinely haunting moment and right till the close you eye the Jack waxwork a little nervously.

Waxworks is a sight for sore eyes (hayfever and long drives…). Leni’s sets are superb throughout and Helmar Lerski’s cinematography brings them to life from the oppressive low-beamed ceilings of the Kremlin to the nightmarish exposures for jumping Jack flash.

Jack's menacing montage
Stephen played with his customary lyricism and control – playing the electronic keyboard always anchored with the Barbican’s splendid Steinway. Flute and accordion were also played all in sympathy with the film and as part of a remarkably well-structured improvisation. Waxwork’s range of moods presents a challenge to any musician, especially the curious mix of comedy, drama and horror (not to mention Emil!) but, once again, Mr Horne made it look like he’d spent weeks planning this all out with the ghost of Paul Leni or, possibly his animated wax figure…

Waxworks is available in its fully-restored length complete with tints, from Kino and you can order direct as well as from the long river that winds past localised tax-returns…

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