Director: Paul Leni
By Roderick Heath
Paul Leni’s identify won’t be as immediately recognisable to film lovers as his fellows within the legendary days of German “Expressionist” cinema, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Nonetheless, Leni stands with them as one of many main artistic figures of that type, of the budding horror movie style, and of the good mature section of silent cinema normally. Leni beat each administrators to the punch in emigrating to Hollywood within the mid-1920s, the place he did important work fusing the concerted visible results of the UFA method with the regular, rhythmically intense storytelling motifs of Hollywood, and so maybe had probably the most rapid impression on a era of administrators rising on the time, together with Josef von Sternberg, John Ford, and Sergei Eisenstein.
Like Murnau, he would die tragically younger and on the peak of his abilities, in his case from blood poisoning ensuing from an abscessed tooth, a tragic and ridiculous destiny someway consistent with the tenor of Leni’s ripely morbid works. Leni’s preliminary work in cinema got here as a set designer and decorator, a vocation he had learnt within the theatres of Berlin, and shortly plied for administrators together with Joe Could and E. A. Dupont. He continued to offer artwork path for different filmmakers even after he made his debut as director, Dr Hart’s Diary (1917). Leni’s true calling card was nonetheless to be Waxworks, one of many near-mythical works springing from the king tide of Expressionism in German movie.
Following Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Waxworks equally provides an early tackle the anthology movie, composed of brief, distinct however stylistically and thematically associated tales. His screenwriter on the mission was Henrik Galeen, who penned a number of Expressionist classics together with Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) and Murnau’s Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Waxworks commences with a younger poet, performed by William Dieterle, later to develop into a major director himself, invited to go to a waxworks present that travels with a carnival that’s rolled into city: the carnival is common however the waxworks is ignored.
The poet speaks to the supervisor of the present (John Gottowt) and his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), and learns they need somebody to put in writing entertaining tales to lend mythos to the most important figures within the present, that are Harun-Al-Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad who featured in Arabian Nights, Ivan the Horrible, and Jack the Ripper, who’s conflated right here with Spring-Heeled Jack, the supernatural wayfarer who supposedly terrorised London within the late eighteenth century. The poet readily takes up the exhibitors’ supply, and even shortly and amusedly amends a proposed story when the proprietor unintentionally breaks a limb off the Harun determine; thus the poet begins to inform the story of how the Caliph misplaced his arm. Leni then begins as an example the poet’s historic fantasia, with Harun personified as a chunky autocrat, performed by Emil Jannings. Harun performs chess together with his Grand Vizier on a terrace of his fortress, solely to be disturbed when a cloud of black smoke begins to spoil the day’s splendour.
Offended as a result of he was shedding the match, Harun sends his Vizier out to trace down whoever is making the smoke and execute them. The supply of the air pollution proves to be the chimney of a baker (Dieterle once more), who’s married to probably the most stunning lady in Baghdad, Maimune (Belajeff once more). Delighted with the glimpse he catches of her as she flirts along with her husband after which him from her vantage, the Vizier forgets his vicious responsibility and as a substitute returns to inform the Caliph of this fascinating jewel.
The Cupboard of Dr Caligari (1919), immortal because the founding work of the movie Expressionist type, had a crafty metafictional gadget to border it, because the protagonists within the central drama of mesmerism and homicide have been revealed to be lunatics in an asylum, reconfigured into actors in a psychotic’s fantasy. By comparability, Waxwork’s body has a lighter, humorous high quality, because the poet’s fancies are units for flirting with Eva.
Besides that Waxworks’ chapters basically inform the identical story over in variances, turning into more and more direct and intensified in figuring the lovers and the lethal risk. Woven in with that is an equal and more and more nervous contemplation of the person weak within the face of ravening energy, couched first social and political phrases, in Harun and Ivan, after which within the lurking, miasmic pure dread of Jack the Ripper.
This primary episode provides the theme in a mildly comedic method, as Harun and the baker make expeditions to say what the opposite one has: Harun needs the baker’s spouse and the baker, making an attempt to appease her stoked want for worldly rewards, decides to interrupt into the palace and steal Harun’s wish-granting magic ring. The Vizier’s go to has stoked consciousness in each baker and bride of their lowly, straitened circumstances, and their festering resentments get away afterwards, with the baker stomping out on his vainglorious mission with the declaration, “I’m a person!” This talismanic phrase recurs with extra particular drive in Leni’s later movie, The Man Who Laughs, however its implicit declaration of the innate rights and stature of the person echoes all through Waxworks. It’s not exhausting to search for its relevance to real-world circumstances on the time – Germany was deep within the grip of the post-war reparations-induced financial disaster. Murnau’s The Final Chuckle the identical 12 months tackled, once more with Jannings, the identical theme of desperation and dehumanisation by way of fiscal disaster.
Within the first chapter, this battle resolves comically after Leni intercuts Harun’s surprisingly clumsy, self-satisfied efforts to seduce Eva, along with her husband’s adventures. He steals into the palace and penetrates the shadowy, cavernous reaches of his bedchamber, finding what he thinks is the Caliph however is definitely a dummy he leaves in his mattress when he goes out on such nocturnal adventures.
Believing the dummy is the actual Caliph, the baker slices off the determine’s arm and flees, dodging guards and eventually escaping the palace with a daring leap onto a palm tree that swings him over the battlement. He returns to his dwelling, as his spouse hurriedly hides the Caliph in the one secret place accessible – the oven. The baker’s enterprise to steal a pretend model of the seemingly mystical jewel proves simply as vainglorious because the Caliph’s seduction, and it’s left to Maimune to conjure a fittingly advantageous finish for all involved as she pretends to make use of the stolen jewel to want the Caliph to seem alive, whereupon he crawls out of the oven, lined in soot however saved from profound embarrassment, and to repay the favour he appoints the baker the official baker to the palace, leaving off with a last picture of the Caliph embracing each companions, cheekily redolent of a ménage-a-trois within the offing.
This chapter of Waxworks considerably belies the movie’s repute as a basic particularly of horror cinema, as a substitute signalling a hyperlink between the performative professionalism and flimflammer artwork of the carnival and the stage pantomime, in addition to reaching again to the portmanteau storytelling custom as represented by the Arabian Nights itself, in addition to the labours of Germanic anthologists like Hoffmann and the Grimm brothers.
This sense of Waxworks as a cultural bridging level is essential in itself. The key “characters” of the waxworks are launched with the actors who embody them famous on the identical time, lowering the good historic figures and the large stars to inflexible figures, powerless with out poets to animate them. In the meantime the narrative performs an analogous perform, turning these actual beings into capabilities of a personal mythological and psychological universe. The stylisation of the settings, the quintessential flourish of the Expressionist type, goals not for realism however for a model of minimalist, nearly symbolic illustration.
Whereas with Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924), Lang laboured to fuse collectively the dreamlike side of Expressionism’s already-familiar twisting reaches and heavy shadows with a three-dimensional sense of scale and stature, right here Leni pushes in the other way, lowering his setting and backdrop as shut in direction of the insubstantial as he can with out fairly going completely summary. The curving minarets and bowing partitions of the palace, up which snakes the black spout of the baker’s inconvenient chimney. The superior but nearly melting halls of the palace inside, the place minions steal between warped columns and smoke and incense dreamily fill the corridors, is unquestionably a spot of the thoughts, an internal sanctum of libidinous greed, whereas the baker’s dwelling is sort of a cave, curved and womb-like.
The second chapter, shorter than the primary, repeats the motif of the mighty, arbitrary ruler of life and dying imposing himself on a pair of younger lovers. This time, nonetheless, the theme is Ivan the Horrible, offered as a glowing-eyed lunatic stricken with a compulsive, nearly childlike fascination for the horrors he can reap on nearly anybody he pleases. The place Jannings’ bluff, hammy efficiency was fitted to the tackle Harun as corpulent, casually murderous however really simply tamed potentate, this chapter provides Conrad Veidt as an unnervingly fixated, spindly-limbed emanation of the sickliest a part of the id, glimpsed shifting in a stiff crouch alongside a dank passage that connects his residences with the Kremlin’s torture chambers.
This story, shorter and sharper than its predecessor, strips the bark off the fantasy figuration of lust and energy. Leni presents Ivan as a monster ruled and, to a level, held in test by an elaborate community of irrational units. Specifically, an enormous hourglass is used to measure how lengthy his victims will probably be tortured, their names written on the glass. When the sand runs out, so does their tenure on Earth. Ivan’s astrologer, his closest confidant, evokes suspicions within the tyrant’s thoughts over the loyalty of his head poison-mixer, and so Ivan decides to have him arrested.
The poisoner, in flip, vengefully writes Ivan’s identify on the hourglass earlier than he’s arrested. Ivan’s doubtful pleasures are interrupted with a boyar arrives, asking him to attend his daughter’s marriage ceremony. The paranoid Tsar at first takes the previous man’s entreaty as a set-up to lure him into an assassination, however then agrees to be a visitor, with one codicil: he insists that the boyar gown in his garments, and vice versa.
The Tsar’s instincts show proper, as a hidden gang of assassins tries to skewer him with an arrow as he rides by way of Moscow, however their bolt, aimed on the regally-dressed determine, kills the boyar as a substitute. Ivan arrives on the boyar’s home and triumphantly declares his arrival, forgetting the element that the bride’s father is lifeless. The bride (Belajeff) weeps over his physique and her husband (Dieterle) releases a tirade of fury on the Tsar, for which he’s immediately imprisoned and tortured. The Tsar additionally has the bride spirited to his chambers to seduce her. She strikes him with a crop as a substitute, so he drags her all the way down to witness her husband’s sufferings. His pleasure is nonetheless minimize brief as his astrologer brings him the hourglass marked together with his identify, believing it means the poisoner efficiently dosed the Tsar fatally. Ivan spirals into full madness as he thinks he’s dying, and he retains turning the hourglass over, believing this may keep the second of his dying. A title card explains he saved doing this till the day he died.
Right here the insistent correlation of the eroticised id with a will to worldly energy turns into extra distinctly maniacal and driving, while the watch-like elements of the story tick on with swift, exact impact. This chapter of Waxworks appears to have had an nearly limitless affect on many who’ve adopted, most particularly Eisenstein, who clearly drew upon it for his equally arch tackle the Tsar in Ivan the Terrible Parts I (1944) and II (1958), reproducing the angular units and equally angular performances. Leni himself would construct upon it with The Man Who Laughs, and Sternberg would draw on each, absolutely, for his personal go to to the realm of the historic fantasia, The Scarlet Empress (1934). The final chapter of Waxworks may be very brief, nearly an appendix, nevertheless it’s additionally probably the most weird and noteworthy sequence.
Right here the poet imagines he and Eva are being stalked across the carnival and city by Jack the Ripper, who appears to vanish like a phantom and reappear, and even manifests in lots of locations directly, because the world turns into more and more unusual and distorted. Lastly the poet is shaken awake by Eva: he’s been having a nightmare, and he gratefully embraces his new lover. Right here Leni slips all bonds of narrative principle and basically provides a visualised nightmare, a plunge right into a formless state of irrationality, the place the poet’s invented enemies and rivals for Eva’s affections void all kinds to develop into a clean, implacable engine of erotic risk.
Right here is each the seed for the picture of the slasher killer who would later maraud his means throughout many a film display screen within the subsequent century, a psychological conception of risk stripped out of all zone of precise human curiosity – Leatherface, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are distant descendants. However Leni’s thrives of favor right here additionally veer into nearly experimental movie type in his madly proliferating double exposures and more and more formless sense of house, used to evoke the whole inward spiral of the psyche in direction of an final confrontation with that darkish character inside. Right here too is kinship with the lawless results of filmmakers as various as Kenneth Anger, David Lynch, and Maya Deren.
Waxworks made Leni’s identify, and inside a few years he went to Hollywood on Carl Laemmle’s invitation. His sense of humour in addition to type and menace would possibly nicely have put in him good stead with Tinseltown, and his first American mission was to movie Crane Wilbur’s comedy-horror play The Cat and the Canary (1927). That movie proved an enormous hit, laying down a template that may quickly resolve into Common’s home type of horror and providing fillips of favor that also recur in horror movies at the moment, like its stressed, entity-suggesting camerawork.
Leni’s third Hollywood movie, The Man Who Laughs, has a legendary lustre at the moment, partially due to its pop cultural affect, notably on that perennial enemy of Batman, The Joker. There’s an irony in there, because the eponymous hero of Leni’s movie, tailored from the novel L’homme qui rit by Victor Hugo, couldn’t be extra totally different to Bob Kane and Invoice Finger’s enigmatic psychopath. Like Hugo’s different, extra well-known protagonists Quasimodo and Jean Valjean, The Man Who Chuckle’s central determine Gwynplaine represents a politically abused however probably highly effective underclass, and like Quasimodo his exterior ugliness belies his high-quality, tortuously delicate humanity.
The movie additionally reunited Leni with Veidt on new shores. The Man Who Laughs kicks off with a protracted prologue the place, though the settings are extra tangible and vivid, returns to the Ivan the Horrible episode of Waxworks because it depicts the English King James II (Samuel de Grasse) and his jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) descend from palace to dungeon on the information his troopers have captured the rebellious Lord Clancharlie (Veidt). James gloats over Clancharlie for sadistic jollies as he informs him that, as a punishment in his father’s stead, his younger son Gwynplaine has been handed over to a sect of gypsies often called comprachico, who concentrate on creating deformed and disabled freaks for carnivals, with the directions to carve his son’s face right into a everlasting grin, “to snigger eternally at his idiot father.”
The opening scenes of The Man Who Laughs are a outstanding string of photos and settings. The statue-lined environs of James’ bedchamber. The jester’s malignant face looking of a secret passage framed by carved monstrosities. The iron maiden closing round Lord Clancharlie as he prays for his son. The wind and snow-whipped shore the place the comprachicos, despatched into exile by James after they’ve finished his ugly bidding, flock onto a ship however abandon younger Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr) to the weather.
The mutilated youngster gropes his means by way of a blizzard studded with hanged our bodies dangling from gibbets, the harvest of James’ repressions. Gwynplaine comes throughout a girl, frozen to dying however along with her toddler youngster nonetheless clutched to her breast. He saves the child and brings her to the parked caravan of travelling actor Ursus (Cesare Gravina), who recognises that the child is blind and calls for of the boy, “Cease that laughing!” earlier than he realises he can not. Ursus takes each kids in and so they make a dwelling travelling between nation gala’s. By the point Gwynplaine (Veidt once more) and the woman, named Dea (Mary Philbin), have grown into adults, Gwynplaine has gained fame, bordering on folks heroism, as a clown and entertainer. Together with a band of fellow gamers, he, Ursus, and Dea enact a play written by Ursus referred to as “The Man Who Laughs.” However destiny has a imply gag in retailer once they roll into Southwark Honest in London’s suburbs, a setting modelled after one in all William Hogarth’s famously ebullient but additionally viciously satiric engravings.
Right here the comprachico surgeon who gave him his outstanding countenance, Dr Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), now dwelling below a pseudonym, recognises his handiwork on Gwynplaine’s face, and writes a letter to the present holder of the Clancharlie property, the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova), a debauched aristocrat and illegitimate sister of the present ruler Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell). The message nonetheless is intercepted by Barkilphedro, now working for the courtroom and visiting Josiana, and he alerts Anne to this unusual and probably propitious discovery: Josiana has been irritating Anne along with her wilfully smug behaviour and wanton escapades, and a neat gadget of punishment is now open to her.
Le homme qui rit was written by Hugo when he was in exile from France for his harshly crucial writings on the nationwide authorities, and he wrote it to function a lot as an oddball political parable as a normal historic romance. Leni retains intact each its nominal setting in English historical past but additionally its bizarre, Ruritanian side, utilizing this simply as Hugo did – as an excuse to indulge his bizarre fancies.
Though the types of issues they’re depicted as doing had been actual practices in instances a lot additional previous, the comprachicos have been simply the primary of Hugo’s innovations. After the ugly, outsized fairytale thrives of the opening, The Man Who Laughs slowly resolves into one thing extra like a melodrama, if one nonetheless laced with dimensions of perversity. These dimensions resolve as Gwynplaine is tortured by Dea’s love for him, believing he has no proper to impose somebody of his grotesque stature on her, though she will be able to’t see the affliction.
He sees some hope, nonetheless, when Josiana visits the truthful the place he’s performing and, compelled by his unusual look, invitations him to her manor. Gwynplaine, convincing himself that if somebody can really love him regardless of his deformity than he has the precise to like Dea, accepts the invitation. He finds himself the article of a fetishist’s electrical, potently erotic mix of repulsion and fascination, as Josiana rejoices in his hideousness, clearly turned on by it in a sick means that Gwynplaine appropriately senses is merely the flipside of the extra acquainted horror and mockery he receives reasonably than a negation of it. However then Josiana receives a letter from the Queen, informing her that now Gwynplaine has been discovered, he will probably be restored to his rightful inheritance, and she or he will probably be obligated to marry him. Josiana’s rueful laughter, signalling consciousness she’s about to nailed to this explicit level of her character as her cross simply as absolutely as Gwynplaine’s face is his, sends Gwynplaine operating.
This proves the catalyst for Gwynplaine lastly permitting Dea to really feel the character of his disfigurement, a second that resolves with Dea’s gorgeously corny line, “God took away my sight to see the actual Gwynplaine!” Each Philbin and Baclanova featured in two different, fairly totally different but pertinent takes on the basic dichotomy offered right here, as Philbin had beforehand performed Christine in The Phantom of the Opera (1926), reverse Lon Chaney, and Baclanova would go on to once more be the determine of taunting sensuality earlier than the misshapen in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).
Even on the cusp of happiness, Gwynplaine can’t escape the peculiar entice that’s id: he’s arrested by royal troopers and brought to jail, to be press-ganged into Anne’s plan for him. When Ursus follows him there, he errors a funeral procession for Hardquanonne, who had been captured and held there too, for Gwynplaine’s. Leni continues to stage outstanding sequences, as when the gamers fake to be placing on a traditional present to maintain Dea from studying of his obvious dying, and the prolonged finale through which Gwynplaine is offered to the Home of Lords while Dea, realising he’s alive, gropes blindly to search out her option to him.
For all its aspects of brilliance, nonetheless, The Man Who Laughs is peculiarly lumpy expertise dramatically talking, splitting the distinction between gothic grandeur, sickly satire, and mawkish melodrama, earlier than resolving in a way match for a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. The hoary plot by no means fairly builds to any sequences as memorable as these in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which, apparently, Waxworks star Dieterle would movie in 1939), while the try and go for a crowd-pleasing tone within the last lap is underlined when Barkilphedro will get his comeuppance, his throat ripped out by Ursus’ loyal canine.
That such a mix doesn’t completely mix isn’t stunning, as Laemmle’s dedication to repeat the success of The Phantom of the Opera noticed a couple of too many cooks including to the broth on the script degree. However The Man Who Laughs packs a wallop regardless due to the keenness Leni and Veidt spend money on it. Right here was the right function for Veidt and the right mythology for Leni. Veidt’s look, a dental plate used to make his everlasting smile-snarl appear all of the extra unnatural, provides a face became a kabuki masks, inflexible and lunatic.
And but watching how Veidt sketches feelings across the edges of this provides a grasp class in expressive performing. Maybe the excessive level of the movie, directly hallucinatory and unsparing in its gaze, comes when Gwynplaine first seems on stage at one in all his reveals. The smile he activates his audiences beneficial properties delirious energy, sending the group into convulsions and bringing Josiana below the spell of a peculiar charisma, her fixation communicated in a sequence of superimpositions and dissolves, stunning (however ugly) man and ugly (however stunning) man certain collectively, a visible etude of consciousness that one should exist to present that means the opposite. His hideousness sparks merriment, turns into a leer of mutual mockery, a telegraph to the widespread folks suggesting the darkish aspect of the society they reside in, and eventually finding an accord with them, on the extent of frail humanity, the embodiment of all absurdity.
To see Gwynplaine is to have an existential disaster that may solely be resolved in laughter, while the person himself experiences the sexual thrill of intense masochism being happy, and exultation in his uncommon fame.
The vividness of Leni and Veidt’s realisation of this theme absolutely was to echo on by way of Common’s subsequent horror movies with their tragic antiheroes. As Gwynplaine finally rises from the standing of clown to lord, he manages the extra essential evolution, lastly voiced when bellows with righteous fury on the shocked toffs and fatuous queen: “A king made me a clown! A queen made me a lord! However God made me a person!” It’s the climactic second of the movie and of the revealing thread of curiosity that runs by way of from Waxworks to this movie, the depiction of brutal energy: Gwynplaine’s declaration of the rights of man is each bit as totemic, and immediately punishable, because the baker and bridegroom’s invective towards their tyrants and the evils pressured by life within the earlier movie.
Thankfully, Gwynplaine’s new standing cuts a swathe by way of the shocked lords, giving him a short window of escape earlier than the Queen’s heavies transfer in, and he levels a profitable flight throughout the rooftops of London. This sequence , as with the baker’s escape from the palace in Waxworks, reveals Leni’s items on the free rush of motion as nicely in creating the tangled moods of psychic nervousness. Regardless of the never-never setting of each movies, or maybe due to it, a real cost of palpable that means emerges from such thrives. Leni’s world is a spot of wandering, rootless however free artists and craving poets, twisted beings filled with humanity, and monstrous forces of political and social energy. However, most basically, for each the poet and Gwynplaine, the person himself is his personal enemy. Leni’s small however nonetheless important oeuvre is charged with this sense of duality. The monster is stalking us; the monster is us.