Warning Shadows - A Nocturnal Hallucination
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(Jul 18, 2006)
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German expressionist cinema was at its height in the 1920s, and few films embodied the movement as much as Warning Shadows. Directed by Arthur Robison, this classic tale of psychological horror remains his best known work, celebrated for its outrageous visual style and notorious for its attempt to make a purely visual feature film - in other words, a film with no inter-titles (except, of course, the opening credits). A mysterious traveler and illusionist who performs shadow puppetry arrives to provide some entertainment at an otherwise routine dinner party. The host of the party is already mad with jealousy over the presence of his wife's four suitors, but when the puppet show begins, passions overtake reason and reality is not what it appears to be. Shadows, reflections and silhouettes are the dominant imagery, and the film boasts the extraordinary camerawork of Fritz Arno Wagner, the German cinematographer who is renowned for his work with Fritz Lang (Spies, M) and F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu). Although this marks the first time the film has been released on DVD in the United States, Warning Shadows has long been considered a landmark work by champions of the German cinema. Lotte Eisner, in her book "The Haunted Screen," declared that director Robison "handles phantoms with the same mastery as his strange illusionist," while Siegfried Kracauer, in From Caligari to Hitler, simply stated that Warning Shadows "belongs among the masterpieces of the German screen."
There's no more archetypal German Expressionist film title than Warning Shadows, and this gem of a movie lives up to its name in a variety of ways. It was based on an idea by Albin Grau, who wasn't a writer but had just earned a permanent place of honor in film history as the art director and costume designer of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, functions he also performs here. Except for the deliberately artificial opening, when all the characters and players are identified--in a setup that simultaneously suggests a stage proscenium and a motion picture screen--there's not a single title card. A stunningly imaginative and visually adventurous creation, the movie rivets the eye, beguiles the mind, and delivers several genuinely amazing twists and surprises--the best of them deriving from the audience's willing complicity as voyeurs of light-and-shadow plays on a two-dimensional screen. Add that the film is a virtual who's-who of German screen actors, and you've got a major candidate for delighted rediscovery.
The action takes place within a single night, when a handful of guests assemble for a dinner party at the home of a well-to-do couple. Most of the men dream of seducing the wife (Ruth Weyher)--and for her part she often seems perilously close to falling out of her gown! The husband is played by Fritz Kortner, a thick-set, beetle-browed man who was the Expressionist actor par excellence, using his massive head, body, arms, and volcanically changeable stance to architecturally rearrange the very dynamics of the motion picture frame. The husband's inveterate suspicions of everybody within range are intensified by the devilish intervention of a strolling showman (Alexander Granach, Nosferatu's Renfield), who crashes the party and initiates an extravagant lightshow.
The film's director, the American-born Arthur Robison, appears to have encouraged a more antic mood among the players than we expect from the grim German cinema of the '20s. Not that that diminishes the dark psychological and metaphysical undercurrents of the film, or trivializes the experience. The Murnau Institute's restoration relied principally on a clear, handsomely tinted original print deposited with the Cinémathèque Française and a good print of the American release version archived at the Museum of Modern Art. Barring only a few brief passages, the restoration looks very, very good--and the film looks great. --Richard T. Jameson
- B&W with color tints
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Highly recommended for all silent film buffs. This is quite a treasure.
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