Leo Birinsky and Paul Leni
Emil Jannings as Harun al Raschid
Conrad Veldt as Ivan the Terrible
Werner Krauss as Jack the Ripper
Like many German expressionist directors, Birinsky and Leni transform the limitations of the silent era into atmospheric artwork. Exaggerated shadows, buildings and movements are some of the techniques employed in all expressionist films and this one is no exception. Like most anthologies, the three stories are separate and only connected by the narrator’s imagination, yet they are ordered by darkness both visually and in terms of content. Even though all of them are concerned with death, the proximity of the viewer to fear of the inevitable narrows until death is literally waiting right around the corner. Like most dark expressionist films, the action is only half the film. The buildup of shadow – or more appropriately, the closing in of shadows around the actors is just as critical. The first story has few. The second more. The third is shrouded in almost complete darkness.
The plot is simple enough. Those familiar with House of Wax (either the original or the remake) will be disappointed, or maybe pleasantly surprised that the ‘horror’ does not in any way involve the wax figures. They merely serve as props, or even excuses, to spark the imagination of the narrator – a promotional writer. The first tale he concocts is the story of a baker who offends the Sultan Harun al Raschid and is summarily sentenced to death. The second depicts Ivan the Terrible as a borderline lunatic who tortures and poisons many with the help of the court chemist. In the third, Jack the Ripper hunts a couple at a carnival and through the alleys of London.
The stories are not particularly interesting, but the expressionist depiction of the atmosphere and characters – particularly the exaggerated movements and shadows are unique to the time and there are few contemporary parallels that measure-up. The first story is in no way scary. In the second, elements of psychological horror present themselves in Ivan the Terrible’s descent into madness. Yet, the third story – meant to be the darkest – is the most influential, as well. Jack the Ripper stalks a young couple without reason in a manner similar to the modern slasher – yet more raw – death is blatantly coming to kill the protagonists. Contemporary audiences will not be frightened, but the killer closing and stabbing – even if only imaginary – bears a striking similarity in action and movement to Jason, or Michael Myers. From a film history standpoint, the blatant depiction of murder, especially with the stabbing at the end, was rare for the period with scenes in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari being another noted exception.
Viewing note: Watch the film muted. Silent films mostly employed rhythms from string and keyboard works that served as a counterpoint to the dark content – almost like an apology, or constant reminder that the horror is just part of a fun experience – not meant to be scary. Filmmakers at the time believed that instilling fear in audiences was an inappropriate goal that society would find unacceptable. Hence, the music was meant to ameliorate any unsettling feelings. Bottom line: Watch the film with the music off. The disconnection alone between the movement of each character’s mouth and the text frames enhances the unsettling nature of the atmosphere.