Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 07 November 2006
Source Kino Video DVD
The very title of Warning Shadows — merely “Shadows” in its original German title — points to the most recognisable feature of all those German films of the 1920s to which the term “German expressionism” is so loosely applied: the threatening shadows that loom across the screen, both chilling and fascinating, phenomena of a chiaroscuro world that in its totality likewise both chills and fascinates us.
Of course, German expressionism was always more than this, but there were in fact very few films which wholeheartedly took on the artistic practices of expressionism in art and theatre — the resolute non-naturalism, the extreme subjectivity of point-of-view, the nightmare vision of the darker impulses of humanity, the exclusion of the natural world, the distorted sets where interior perception is transformed into a concrete exterior, the dramatic contrasts in light and darkness, and a jarring acting style — and translated them into a cinematic form. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is of course the prime example, whereas other famous “Expressionist” films like Dr Mabuse the Gambler, Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, and Metropolis only apply the Expressionist style selectively and never committed to the Expressionist world-view. Warning Shadows on the other hand is a truly Expressionist film, but its curiously muted if not slightly dull effect points to the limits of Caligarism. Caligari in the end remains the unique model, with films like Warning Shadows merely offering imitations in a minor key.
Warning Shadows has its own Caligari figure, but one that’s very far from that megalomaniac evil genius. Here he’s a comic, impish character, happy to enter a rich man’s house and sow anarchic discord, and then ride off merrily on a farmer’s pig once normalcy has been restored. He’s a travelling entertainer, putting on silhouette puppet shows but with an underhand line in mesmerism, a comic Caligari/Mabuse with no interest in anything more than upsetting temporarily the social order. Class isn’t an issue, masters and servants are the target of his antics. So, when he’s finally invited in to the house, he leaps around slapping the two servants and the maid, and then sets to work on the upper class present—for example, sneaking, candelabra in hand, behind the wife as she dances to reveal her body beneath her flimsy attire to her audience of five males.
The setting is a rich eighteenth-century household, where a husband and wife entertain four male guests, all of them — the youngest in particular — suitors of her in some way. In keeping with Expressionist drama, with its roots in Strindberg’s late symbolist plays, none of the characters have individual names, but are assigned archetypal designations, “The Man,” “The Woman,” etc. (after this introductory section, the film contains no intertitles); and the function of the entertainer is to reveal the dark sexual and violent passions that rage beneath this society’s placid exterior.
Care has been taken with the eighteenth-century costuming, but this all still takes place on an artificial, studio set. There’s no attempt at absolute realism, with anachronistic objects, such as a suit of samurai armour, an African statuette, a giant Pre-Raphaelite painting, and a modernist chair, placed on the set to heighten mood and emotion. There’s even one Caligari moment when the husband comes out to pick flowers, obscured in the foreground by the twists and turns of patently artificial studio-set plants, while the jagged lines of the house rise up in the background.
At the beginning of the film the relationship between the husband and wife, this archetypal Man and Woman, is a perverse one. She’s openly flirtatious and provocative, as when she first appears in an embrace, silhouetted behind drawn blinds, to the arriving guests outside, then deliberately positions herself by an open window for the gaze of her youngest admirer. She’s also self-centred and solipsistic, as we see in her narcissistic stare at herself in the mirror, unaware of the guests’ antics around her. Once the “nocturnal hallucination” of the film’s subtitle is under way, we again witness her narcissism as she fingers her jewellery in a gesture of auto-eroticism.
The husband is simultaneously enthralled by her and racked with the most abject jealousy, expressed in two fantasy scenes that occur prior to the arrival of the entertainer. In the first, he abases himself at his wife’s feet as she stretches out languorously on the bed. In the second, she appears wandering through a stylised garden set, on which are superimposed first the face of the Young Man and then the figures of the other men lasciviously reaching up to touch her.
Subsequent to this is a scene observed and misinterpreted by the husband from the other side of a curtained door. The guests play with the wife’s shadow, projecting their own shadows to tease and caress her shadow-figure; this lewd shadow play is then misunderstood by the husband, viewing it at one remove, as reality. A similar scene occurs once the dinner party has begun, when the husband misinterprets the casual alignment of the shadows of two hands as a sign that his wife and the Young Man are surreptitiously holding hands.
It’s finally up to the malicious entertainer to turn these flimsy shadows into a tangible reality, to give full expression to these underlying fears and desires. He does this by drawing the shadows of the seated diners out along the floor into an ever enlarged form, at which point the diners all magically shift en masse to the other side of the table, and the “nocturnal hallucination” begins. The Woman and the Young Man’s sexual desires come to fruition, and the Man’s worst fears, once realised, will turn to murderous violence as he stages his own performance whereby the Woman is bound and laid on the dining table and the Man’s new-found forcefulness of personality will drive the guests to a ritualistic murder.
“Shadows” is the original German title, and shadows are the visual motif that underlies the whole film, established in an opening sequence of heightened artifice and theatricality. A curtain opens on a proscenium stage and the shadows of two giant hands join together on the screen behind and then separate again, to introduce all the characters as they appear on the stage, their figures dissolving into a darkened silhouette and then into nothing. The entertainer is the puppet master here, the one in control of the figures at play. Unlike the others, he emerges from beneath the stage (just as the others’ fears and desires will rise up from beneath their social exteriors), casting a giant shadow of a head into the screen behind, before which he turns and salutes the audience.
This theatricality reoccurs throughout the film itself. The story is divided into numbered acts, marked by the silhouette of an upraised finger or fingers. A curtain will close on the image almost in mid-shot, to indicate the end of an act; and this also happens after the climactic killing of the woman, before the action continues again.
In addition, the proscenium stage reappears in the house itself: the dining room is repeatedly shown in a depth-of-field long shot, with the brightly-lit scene around the dining table in the background framed by a proscenium arch that marks the boundary with the darkened foreground. The screen from the proscenium stage reappears here too, on the wall behind the dining table. It’s onto this screen that the entertainer’s silhouette puppet show is projected, and it’s here that the hallucinations of the night are extinguished. After the murder first of the wife and then of the husband, the killer-guests stand frozen by the window as the camera reverse-tracks, and this smaller image, masked by the surrounding darkness, is transformed into a cinema-like one projected onto the wall, before this image too suddenly vanishes, just as the husband’s body on the cobblestones outside did.
You have to admire the variations on the shadow motif that Robison (and the great cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner) work through the film. Time and time again, we are shown action through the play of shadows or silhouettes:
Still, there’s also something a little too programmatic about this; the application of this shadow motif is slightly ponderous and overextended. In Nosferatu a single shot of the vampire’s shadow rising up into the frame has a startling and eerie quality. There’s nothing like that in Warning Shadows, where the images, all repeated to similar effect, in the end lack any real force or potency.
When the entertainer brings these hallucinations to an end by returning the diners to the side of the table they were originally seated at and by concluding his Chinese silhouette-puppet show (whose action parallels that of the film), his audience seems genuinely disturbed by the sense they now have of the dark passions they keep barely in check. This is the entertainer’s revenge on this society—as he lets himself out, he offers a sardonic gesture of farewell to upper and lower classes alike.
But if the entertainer is meant to be a subverting lord of misrule, he’s singularly ineffective. The light of day suffuses this world now as the old servant opens the curtains on the embracing couple, who are now Man and Woman united. Their characters have even changed from the beginning of the film. The Woman is no longer the flirtatious, provocative force of the start of the film; now, she studiously ignores the Young Man’s greeting from below. It’s as if they’ve awoken from this nightmare only to have their confidence in the validity of their world even more strengthened. Normal life asserts itself in the bustle of the market being set up in the courtyard below, while the entertainer stages his comic exit on the back of a stolen pig.