• Casey Lehman

Paul Leni’s Waxworks and the Transition Away from Expressionism

The style of film known as German Expressionism was fashionable in the medium for less than five years in the late teens and early twenties of the last century, but its influence is still felt today. Beginning with the release of the first true horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in 1919, the Expressionist mode of filmmaking leaned heavily on stylization, projecting the twisted interior worlds of characters onto their surroundings. These worlds often involved painted backdrops standing in for real sets, with buildings leaning at impossible angles, looming over tortuous city streets and dark alleys; the acting style seen in such films may look overly histrionic to our eyes today, but it is intentionally so: each emotion a character has is felt to the highest degree, and is expressed with commensurate ardor. Georgia Tech professor JP Telotte reminds us too that Expressionism is not limited to the visual, as, on a narrative level, themes of disaffection, mendacity, and insanity abound in these films and their predecessors in other arts (Telotte 16).

The brief Expressionist wave that began with the end of the War to End All Wars crashed as all waves must, and in spectacular fashion with Paul Leni’s 1924 film Waxworks.

A classic example of an Expressionist tendency towards narratives revolving around some sort of show, Waxworks presents a sort of dark inversion of the old Shakespearean adage “all the world’s a stage”; often in Expressionist films, and especially in Waxworks, we are seeing the interior made exterior, a subject’s mind (generally carrying trauma from the First World War and its aftermath) is usually the only point of view the audience shares. Our protagonist’s world becomes a “stage” only through our intrusion into their mind, laying bare all the ugly truths about their inner life.

But unlike the ambiguous mental illness for which the protagonist is locked away in the earlier The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the writer’s mind in Waxworks is presented as not only perfectly sane but brimming with imagination: he even fancies that one of the wax figures comes to life and (in the most visually-stunning sequence of the film) attacks! Telotte’s interpretation of Waxworks leans heavily on principles of spectatorship. He treats each episode in turn, noting how the subjects (in each case one of the wax figures and a couple played, in the writer’s imagination, by the writer himself and the daughter of the wax museum’s proprietor) all attempt to take up and maintain positions where they are observing others, rather than being observed. For the powerful men depicted in the first two episodes, Caliph of ancient Baghdad Haroun Al-Raschid and Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible, the reversals of power that take place are especially harrowing, dragging those despots down to the level of commoners as they are overtaken by their darkest fears and desires (Telotte 21-4). Their stories have the potential to thrill and instruct both the fairgoers in the wax museum and us as the audience in the theater as they explore the corrupting nature of power; it is the only major failing of Leni’s film that he chose to turn this setup into a purely aesthetic exercise.

From this perspective, Waxworks represents a rejection of certain ideologies shared by earlier Expressionist artists, who used the interiority inherent to the aesthetic to essentially X-ray society, using those darkest fears and desires to show the world its own true face. Leni’s film holds no such seriousness of purpose, instead using the principles of the Expressionist

Paul Leni

mode in what German critic Jürgen Kasten calls a purely “decorative” manner. He continues: “This comes as no surprise in view of the aesthetic development of German cinema and other art forms until 1923. The late completion of the film, and a further one-year delay until its première in 1924, would have all but destroyed any chance for a purely expressionistic film to have a commercial impact” (Kasten 183). Further, the several exotic locales of the story were certainly attractive to Leni, who cut his teeth in the film industry designing sets (Elsaesser 234). By 1924, Expressionism was already becoming passé as it had before WWI in other Arts. German film historian Thomas Elsaesser contends that films like Waxworks and Ernst Lubitsch’s earlier The Wild Cat (1921) should be seen as parodies of the form and its rapidly desiccating tendency toward over-stylization (Elsaesser 63-4). Especially given the satirical elements in the first episode presented in Waxworks, we can see that Leni was less influenced by the social commentary of his contemporaries than he was by the visual freedom of the genre.

Waxworks is unevenly split into three different episodes, each presenting a wildly different aesthetic and anchored by bombastic, idiosyncratic performances by three different leads. The film opens on a young writer who, after finding his way through a crowded fairground, enters a wax museum with a classified ad in hand, seeking employment. Engaged to write stories to go along with the museum’s displays of some of history’s most evil personalities, he imagines himself first as a baker, living with his beautiful wife in Ancient Baghdad near the residence of Caliph Haroun Al-Raschid, the first model in the wax museum; a rare “comedic” role for larger-than-life actor Emil Jannings (who later became a Nazi and here represents the whitewashing common to early film history, German or otherwise), the Caliph passes his days with women, food, and a game of chess. With set design that reflects both the Caliph’s portly frame and the fluffy bread produced by the baker, Leni’s vision of Ancient Baghdad succeeds much more in representing the fruit of our protagonist-writer’s imagination than it does in any sense of accurate historical depiction.

The film’s second episode takes on a more somber tone, shifting to Medieval Russia during the reign of Ivan IV, the first Russian Czar and better known as Ivan the Terrible (played by Conrad Veidt, who had starred previously in the above-mentioned The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari). The airy interiors of Baghdad are gone, replaced with low ceilings in claustrophobia-inducing chambers that provide a visual echo to the Czar’s ever-increasing paranoia; while the rounded buildings of the previous episode are nowhere to be seen, we can glimpse their echoes in the opulent cupolas of the Czar’s palace and, more ominously, in the over-sized hourglasses Ivan forces his torture victims to stare at, the falling grains of sand representing the slow draining of their lives as his poison does its work. Such continuity subtly reflects Leni’s visual genius as he seamlessly incorporates Expressionism with other stylistic elements in multiple ways throughout the film, pointing to the future of the dying genre: “the future of both the conventional and the artistic film,” Kasten writes, “was a realistic or near-realistic design to which, occasionally, fantastic elements would be added through special preparation or camera work” (Kasten 184). Kasten’s use of the word “fantastic” here is particularly apt, as most of Waxworks does take place in a world of fantasy, only mixing the real and the unreal in its unfortunately short final episode.

When the writer dozes off over his compositions, the final wax figure, called Spring-Heeled Jack or Jack the Ripper depending on the version of the film (in either case played by the other star of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Werner Krauss), comes to life to terrorize the writer and the museum proprietor’s daughter once again. As Jack chases the lovers through the streets we see the entire fairground come to life at once, with several different attractions superimposed over each other. What this kaleidoscopic flurry of images ends up evoking, as the writer wakes up just before Jack strikes a killing blow, is the last exuberant gasp of Expressionism proper; the legacy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the war that inspired the movement’s transition from the other arts to film, though interesting fodder for both dramatic and aesthetic practice, is (naively) treated as a thing of the past, the stuff of nightmares and scary stories. As Kasten sums it up: “Not only have the tyrants lost their potential to evoke fear and terror in a kind of ironic alienation effect, but also the night, a frightening symbol of horror where psychopathic tyrants populate the narrow alleyways, has once more been reclaimed by lovers and their activities – even if they only entertain each other with scary tales of horror” (Kasten 182). With Waxworks, Leni produced a masterwork of an Art Film but his commitment to aesthetics over politics prevented a truly good film from being great.

Works Cited

Elsaesser, Thomas. Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary. Routledge, 2000. Kasten, Jürgen. “Episodic Patchwork: The Bric-à-Brac Principle in Paul Leni’s Waxworks.” Expressionist Film – New Perspectives, edited by Dietrich Scheunemann, Camden House, 2003, 173-186. Telotte, J.P. “German Expressionism: A cinematic/cultural problem.” Traditions in World Cinema, edited by Linda Badley, R. Barton Palmer, and Steven Jay Schneider, Rutgers University Press, 2006, 15-28.

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Updated: May 24

Starting something new here, a series of articles on the films of American director Gore Verbinski. Starting with 1997’s Mouse Hunt and concluding (for now) with 2013’s A Cure for Wellness, I intend to explore the evolution of his style and the different ways in which his directorial vision manifests, depending on such factors as genre, budget, studio influence, and more.

Born in Tennessee in 1964 to parents of Irish and Polish extraction, Gore Verbinski got into show business first as a musician before and during his time in film school at UCLA. After graduation, he eventually found work directing music videos for L.A. punk bands such as NOFX and Bad Religion, and commercials, most famously the original Budweiser Frogs TV spot from Super Bowl XXIX in 1995. Flashes of what would later become some of his signature stylistic traits as a director, from an absurd sense of humor to a muted, earth-tone color palette, abound in these early efforts; Verbinski’s punk pedigree, dynamic presentation, and mainstream sensibility led DreamWorks Pictures to give him his first chance to direct a feature film with Mouse Hunt in 1997.

Led by frantic, suitably broad performances from Nathan Lane (The Producers, The Lion King) and Lee Evans (The Fifth Element) as a pair of hapless brothers who inherit both a failing string factory and a decrepit mansion when their father (William Hickey, best known to Millennial viewers as the voice of the mad scientist Dr. Finklestein in The Nightmare Before Christmas [1993]) passes away, Mouse Hunt is the modern era’s prime example of the slapstick comedy, one of Classic Hollywood’s most beloved and enduring genres. Here from the very beginning (literally the first two scenes) of his feature film directing career, we see Verbinski’s cinephilic tendencies come to the surface, as Mouse Hunt is littered with references to multiple eras of film history: after opening on a funeral during a rainy day so dreary it may as well be in black and white, mimicking the aesthetics of old silent movies, the film proceeds immediately to a scene in a bustling restaurant (owned by Lane’s character Ernie, who is also the head chef) with dialogue that references Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 classic of Italian Neorealism, and Au revoir les enfants (1987), Louis Malle’s devastating World War II drama that won the Golden Lion, the top prize of the prestigious Venice Film Festival.

As we will see time and again throughout Verbinski’s work this second scene, while intertextually rich, is actually very straightforward from a dramatic perspective: the mayor of the brothers’ unspecified hometown accidentally consumes a cockroach at Ernie’s restaurant, the realization of which causes a heart attack that kills him on the spot. This scene also originates Verbinski’s career-long affinity for the grotesque, with the gruesome beheading and subsequent squirming of the fully CG cockroach that is surprisingly well-executed for the mid-90s, when computer-generated imagery in movies was still in its formative stages. Throughout the rest of his career, and the rest of this series, we will see in Verbinski’s camera-eye a tendency to push in close on the hideous and unsightly; while the dramatic implications of this tendency do vary, I think it always stems from a desire to present brief glimpses of harsh reality in films that often exist on something of a plane of unreality. Verbinski’s films, even the ones ostensibly more grounded in our “normal” reality like The Weather Man (2005), always carry with them a sense of the metaphorical; they are all legends, or myths, or fables in one way or another and they often impart their moral lesson with an admirable lack of pedantry. Still, though, they tend to flirt dangerously with the line between the sense of wonderment appropriate to their mythologizing bent and an overwrought seriousness of purpose that, at its worst, comes off as downright silly. It is one of Verbinski’s major failings as a director that he can’t seem to decide on which side of this line he wishes to reside.

The brothers soon discover that their father’s mansion, while extremely valuable, is also home to a mouse, and their ensuing mortal struggle with the vermin provides the rest of the film’s action. Each of their schemes to catch and kill him proves more and more destructive to everything and everyone but the mouse himself. Verbinski presents one such scheme in an especially impressive sequence about 35 minutes in: the brothers rig their entire kitchen floor with a series of mousetraps, betting with “the law of averages” in mind that at least one of the traps must kill the beast. Here we see another of the director’s throwbacks to the era of silent films when the hungry mouse emerges from his hole and weaves his way through the traps, eventually using his apparently supernatural intelligence to catapult a cherry onto the floor and spring the traps. As he does so, prolific composer Alan Silvestri’s score follows and emphasizes the mouse’s every move in the manner of the original slapstick comedies of the 1920s (the piece is even titled “Silent Movie” on the film’s soundtrack album), lending the scene a whimsical touch that highlights its unreality without detracting from its entertainment value or sincerity. It is important to note the film’s sincerity here, as Verbinski consistently shows he is happy to work within the conventions of his chosen genre; he has his own style and sensibility, certainly, but he can never be accused of favoring his own tastes over audience expectations.

The limits of sincerity are pushed to the breaking point in the next major set-piece, as the brothers venture to the local pound in search of a cat savage enough to hunt down and kill the elusive mouse. Apparently acting as both surgeon and executioner, the pound employee, who guides them to a frightfully feral beast ridiculously nicknamed “Catzilla”, is played by none other than Ernie Sabella, the Pumbaa to Nathan Lane’s Timon in Disney’s The Lion King (1994); Seinfeld fans may also recognize him as the naked man who accompanies Jerry to Coney Island in the season 3 episode “The Subway”. A literal game of cat and mouse ensues, but here the film digresses briefly (and somewhat illogically) to a scene of the string factory workers rebelling against the brothers’ announcement that their salaries will be deferred to help pay for the mortgage on the mansion. Returning to Catzilla and the mouse, what follows can only be described as a live-action take on Tom & Jerry, but completely lacking the wit and charm of the beloved cartoon. From this low point the film is immediately rescued by Caesar the Exterminator, played by Christopher Walken at the height of a run of brilliantly unnerving performances including Batman Returns (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), The Prophecy (1995), and Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995).

When the brothers leave Walken’s character to grapple with the mouse, we digress again to an extended homage to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), providing Evans ample space to flex his physical comedy muscles as his attempt to run the string factory by himself results in the machinery unraveling his clothing piece by piece. After the mouse brutalizes Caesar just as he did Catzilla, the brothers take matters into their own hands, destroying more and more of the house they originally set out to restore with each attempt on the mouse’s life. As the film departs progressively further from reality, including a moment when Ernie survives being blasted out of the chimney like a rocket, the power of the brothers’ greed to override all logic comes into ever sharper focus. The auction of the mansion at the film’s climax, of course, leads to the house’s total destruction and, when their father’s lucky string floats down to them from the heavens, we are left wondering if they may have been better off sticking with string.

The film’s resolution bears out this notion as the mouse, finally taking pity on the defeated brothers, fires up the string factory’s machinery and adds his own special ingredient: cheese. In an ending that recalls one of silent cinema’s great masterpieces, Fritz Lang’s The Last Laugh (1924), in which an aging hotel porter’s humiliating forced retirement is suddenly canceled when he himself becomes the owner of the hotel, the fusion of string and cheese is a smashing success, breathing new life into the dying factory. The mouse continues to help the brothers too, acting as the factory’s quality control in a little mouse-sized chef hat that certainly must have been a source of inspiration for Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007). The closing lines of the film also wink at Disney, with Ernie suggesting that the mouse should be the new spokesperson for the string factory and noting, “I know some guys who used a mouse as a spokesperson, seemed to work out quite well.” Verbinski, of course, would go on to make Disney a couple of billion dollars as the director of the first three films in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. But more on that later.

With his feature film debut, we can see Gore Verbinski already developing his own visual style, borrowing freely from a diverse array of eras in the history of film. His worldview, too, is on display from the beginning as Mouse Hunt establishes the conflicts between greed and gratitude, the importance of family, and a belief in the influence of fate that would mark all of his subsequent work.

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