There are no textual intertitles in this 1923 silent classic from
Germany, which relates its psychologically grounded narrative entirely
through shadowy and expressionistic visuals. As such it works it quite
well, confounding though it often is.
WARNING SHADOWS: A NOCTURNAL HALLUCINATION (SCHATTEN:
EINE NACHTLICHE HALLUZINATION) is viewed by German film historians as
one of the highlights of the expressionist movement (which also gave us
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and NOSFERATU) and the masterpiece of
director Arthur Robison. For whatever reason it remains little known
outside its native Germany, although it is available in digitally
restored form on DVD from Kino.
An aristocratic man is consumed with jealousy over his
flighty wife and four suave suitors whoíve arrived for a dinner party.
Afflicted by nightmarish visions involving his beloved getting
manhandled by the four guys, the man grows increasingly agitated.
In the meantime a mysterious illusionist has turned up
outside the manís house, determined to put on a show. Upon gaining
entrance the illusionist entertains his hosts by creating shadow shows
with his hands. Following this the illusionist puts on an elaborate
puppet show with cut-out silhouettes whose elongated shadows are cast
onto a large screen.
During the puppet show the illusionist, who appears
fully aware of the protagonistís jealous bent, inflames his hostís
jealousy by subtly changing the light so it appears as if one of the
suitors is touching the manís wife inappropriately. A bit later the
illusionist demonstrates seemingly supernatural powers by shifting the
lightning and perspective of the entire house.
From there illusion takes over completely, with the
wife running off to her room where sheís romanced by one of the suitors.
The husband goes completely mad and becomes determined to kill everyone
in sight. To this end the wife is captured and tied to the dining room
table by a servant, but the husband canít go through with the
executions--and is pushed out a second floor window by the fed-up
suitors. Of course none of this is ďreal,Ē as a climactic scene that
flashes back to the illusionist and his puppet show makes clear.
This film fully lives up to its reputation as a daring
and fascinating experiment in purely visual storytelling. Director
Arthur Robisonís pictorial sense is second to none, and the black and
white cinematography by the legendary Fritz Arno Wagner (of NOSFERATU
and M), presented through various colored tints, is stunning in its
masterful play of light and shadow.
Much of the action is played out before white walls
upon which the elongated shadows would appear to have as much import as
the flesh-and-blood performers. Silhouettes and mirrors also play a
large part in the visual scheme, and become increasingly prevalent as
the film advances. The proceedings are quite difficult to follow in the
latter sections, but that seems to be the whole point; clearly, if
Robison wanted us to understand everything that was happening heíd have
included intertitles explaining the action. That he didnít renders this
provocative relic all the more unforgettable.
WARNING SHADOWS: A NOCTURNAL HALLUCINATION (SCHATTEN: EINE NACHTLICHE
La Cineteca del Comune Di Bologna/La Cinematheque Francaise
Director: Arthur Robison
Screenplay: Albin Grau
Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner
Editing: Rudolph Schneider, Arthur Robison
Cast: Fritz Kortner, Ruth Weyher, Gustav von Wangenheim, Alexander
Granach, Max Gulstorff, Lilli Herder, Karl Platen, Fritz Rasp, Eugen
Rex, Ferdinand von Alten