|Warning Shadows - A Nocturnal Hallucination|
|Written by Allan Peach|
|Monday, 17 July 2006|
“Warning Shadows” (“Schatten—Eine nächtliche Halluzination”) is a rarely seen, but highly influential German psychological horror film from 1923. Director Arthur Robison is known for a number of film history firsts. Some claim his “Nächte des Grauens” (1916) was the first vampire film, his “The Informer” (1929) was the first version of the Liam O’Flaherty story (six years before John Ford’s superior adaptation), and Robison’s “The Student of Prague” (1935) was the first feature film to be broadcast on the BBC using the then “high-definition” format of 405 lines (August 14,1938). Although Robison was born in Chicago, he studied medicine in Germany. Returning to America, he gave up medicine for the theater. In 1914, on the death of his father, he again left for Germany and embarked on a career in the German film industry.
“Warning Shadows’’ is a highly stylized example of German Expressionism. The film opens with a prelude on the stage of a shadow puppet theater. Each character is revealed from the shadows of a puppeteer’s hands, and each is given an archetypal label rather than a name: “The Man,” “The Woman,” “The Young Man,” etc. Once the characters are introduced, Robinson continues his tale without any further intertitles.
The entire film takes place at a debauched dinner party, given by a nobleman and his wife for four not-so-gentlemanly guests. The guests each seek the attentions of the provocatively dressed wife, who, in turn, shamelessly solicits their lecherous advances.
The entertainment for the party is furnished by a traveling shadow puppeteer/mesmerist, who interrupts his shadow show to hypnotize the party and turn the event into the “nocturnal hallucination” of the film’s subtitle. What follows is a brutal and sadistic vision of betrayal and revenge, finally culminating in the salvation of the couple’s relationship with the coming of the dawn.
Director Robinson and the masterful cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner use complex shadow and silhouette imagery to create a mystical atmosphere that takes the story from simple melodrama to a more universal allegory on lust, jealousy, vengeance and deliverance through love. Wagner is best known for his work of “Destiny” (1921) “Nosferatu” (1922), “The Loves of Jeanne Ney” (1927), ”Diary of a Lost Girl” (1929) “The Threepenny Opera” (1931) “M” (1931) and “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” (1933). Along with Carl Hoffmann and Karl Freund, Wagner belongs to the pantheon of German cinematographers who deeply influenced the American Film Noir movement of the post-WWII period.
Stylistically, “Warning Shadows” focuses on inner emotions, illustrating the characters’ thoughts in the first half of the film, and the inevitable consequences of those thoughts in the second. Early on, we see the oblivious wife preparing for the party, while her suitors mischievously pretend to fondle and caress her shadow. The husband sees the combined shadows as a silhouette through a translucent partition, which makes it appear that the suitors are actually making love to the wife. The husband’s jealousy is illustrated by a fantasy sequence in a silhouetted garden. Double exposures of the three older suitors are eclipsed by the superimposed image of the fourth, younger admirer of the wife. The scene symbolically reflects the husband’s suspicion that the young man is the wife’s current lover. The husband is seen with the double exposed horns of the cuckold.
The transition from the angst-ridden first part of the film to the mesmerist’s more sadistic mass hallucination is one of the finest visual moments of the film. Seated at the dining table, the characters’ shadows blend into their bodies, which are transported to the other side of the table. This mystical transition aptly warns the film audience that they are in for grim times in the second half of the film. In the end, the light of dawn brings hope and the shadow effect is repeated in reverse. The redemptive rays of the morning sun mute the horrors of the Walpurgis Night, and the couple’s eyes are opened risk of their potential sins.
Like Pabst’s “Secrets of a Soul” (1926), “Warning Shadows” owes much to the popularity of Freudian thought in the Germany of the 1920’s. The films of Lotte Reiniger might also have influenced Robison. The mesmerist’s play resembles Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette animations. By 1923, Reiniger had only made a few short films, but her work for directors Paul Wegener and Rochus Gliese brought her some acclaim. Production on “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (1926), Reiniger’s masterwork, and the world’s first animated feature, began the year “Warning Shadows” was released. Although “Warning Shadows” was not a box office hit, it was a strong influence on filmmakers of the time, and it is likely that Reiniger saw the film during the early stages of production on “Achmed.”
“Warning Shadows” boasts an all-star cast of German horror film actors of the period. Rudolf Klein-Rogge (the evil Mabuse of “Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler” and “The Last Testament of Dr. Mabuse,” and the mad scientist Rotwang of 1927’s “Metropolis”) will probably be the most recognizable to horror buffs, but the cast also includes Gustav von Wangenheim (the Johnathan Harker-like real estate salesman of Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” and Engineer Windegger of Lang’s “Woman in the Moon” ), Alexander Granach (the Renfield-like fly eater of “Nosferatu”), Fritz Kortner (Nera of “The Hands of Orlac” ), and Fritz Rasp (Peachum of “The Threepenny Opera,” and the druggist who impregnates Louise Brooks in “Diary of a Lost Girl”).
The Kino print of “Warning Shadows” was restored by La Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, La Cinémathèque Française and the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung. The result is a version that still has quite a bit of print damage, with heavy scratching and dirt marks in some scenes. However, compared to shorter, sixty-minute VHS versions of the film, the result is quite extraordinary, and the overall quality of the print is very good despite the forgivable age damage. Tints are used effectively, and the musical score, composed and played on keyboard by Donald Sosin, complements the film’s highly charged range of emotions. Sound effects are used sparingly, and although sound effects are often jarring in silent films, they work well here to punctuate the action.
“Warning Shadows” suffers, to some extent, from Robison’s leaden pacing that is further exasperated by a valiant, but failed attempt to make a totally visual film without intertitles. The lack of titles often makes the film a bit confusing to watch, but in the end “Warning Shadows” is a fascinating film with moments of striking visual beauty and creativity.
It is unfortunate that Kino has released the “Warning Shadows” DVD with absolutely no extras. “Warning Shadows” is ripe for some historical commentary and an essay on the films photography and effects.