A jealous husband, a flirtatious wife, a quartet of lusty dinner guests and a shadow puppeteer… This is going to be an eventful evening. The film is a stylized marvel with plenty of the dark stuff we expect in German cinema.
Worst dinner party ever.
German-American director Arthur Robison is not as famous as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau or Ernst Lubitsch but he has two genuine silent classics to his name: The Informer (released as both a silent and, less successfully, a part-talkie and later remade by John Ford) and Warning Shadows (or Schatten: Eine nächtliche Halluzination in German).
This film should be of interest to silent movie fans for several reasons. First, it manages to tell an entirely visual story with no title cards included after the characters are introduced. Second, it’s ridiculously gorgeous. Third, we can get into all sorts of juicy discussions regarding the meaning of film, the universe and everything.
The film opens in a rather formal manner, a throwback to the introductions of the 1910s. Each character is introduced, given a few moments to strut their stuff and then they depart to make room for the next character.
We have Man (Fritz Kortner) and Woman (Ruth Weyher), a married couple. Then there’s her young lover, called Youth in the credits and played by Gustav von Wangenheim (Hutter in Nosferatu). There is a trio of gentlemen played by Eugen Rex, Max Gülstorff and Ferdinand von Alten. Next, we have the servants, Fritz Rasp, Carl Platen and Lilli Herder. The cast is rounded out by Alexander Granach, who you may remember as Knock in Nosferatu; he plays an itinerant puppeteer here.
And those are all the title cards you’re going to get, my dears. It’s purely visual from here on but this is a beautiful film that you don’t mind getting to know.
The setuo: Man loves his stylish wife dearly but her flirtatious manner is driving him mad, especially since she seems to have taken a younger lover. With the husband off brooding and fantasizing about the matter, the wife entertains her lover and the trio of gentlemen. They soon hit on a game of each man causing his shadow to lewdly interact with that of the wife.
The husband sees these activities cast on a curtain and, of course, he has no way of knowing his wife and the men are standing several feet apart. Fritz Rasp’s servant character is reprimanded by the wife for giggling at her flirtations and takes his revenge by throwing gasoline on the husband’s suspicions.
As the night wears on, the wife becomes more and more brazen in her conduct, openly scorning her husband in favor of her snickering admirers. The Man’s rage continues to rise exponentially and it seems like there will be blood in the parlor before the night is out.
But then we see that an uninvited guest has arrived. An itinerant shadow puppeteer offers to put on a show for the party and the Man accepts the idea. It’s clear that our puppeteer is no ordinary entertainer as he seems to draw the very shadows of the party-goers into his story.
The hosts and guests awake from their stupor and continue to behave as before. Woman slips away from the table and her young lover follows. They are gone entirely too long and Man follows. He sees them embrace in a mirror and that twang! you heard was the last semblance of sanity. Enlisting Fritz Rasp’s servant character to assist him (Rasp seems entirely too excited about his mission), Man determines that he will craft a permanent solution to his marital woes. Oh dear.
You don’t need me to tell you that this is a highly stylized production and that it has a lot to say about the nature of truth. Shadows and reflections are portrayed as both deceivers and truth-tellers. Reality and the perception of reality dance back and forth with neither the audience nor the characters ever being completely sure what is real. (Take THAT, Christopher Nolan!) Paranoid fantasies turn out to be true—unless they aren’t. It’s a wild balancing act and Robison manages to pull it off without outsmarting himself. Mostly.
(Spoilers ahoy for this subheading. Skip to the next header to avoid them.)
Briefly, it turns out that everything was a hallucination induced by the puppeteer. During this hallucination, Man forces his trio of friends to stab Woman as she is tied to the dining room table. Her lover tries to stop them with all his might… well, some of his might… well, he just kind of gives up and weeps, truth be told. Anyway, she dies, the lover stabs the husband and then—Ding!—everyone wakes up from the dream induced by the shadow puppeteer. (For real this time. We… think.) The guests are contemptuously dismissed by the chastened wife and the puppeteer is well-paid for his troubles. The end.
The film presents the “nocturnal hallucination” as more than a mere dream, as shown by the fact that it is shared by all and no one character is used as an audience surrogate. The dinner party has been shown the darkest recesses of their natures.
As you have probably deduced from this review so far, the film contains no likable characters. While our sympathies are initially with the oafish husband as he is forced to watch his wife’s increasingly outrageous flirtations, his behavior during the shadow play quickly squelches this feeling. The young lover and the three friends were unlikable from the beginning but the lover’s cowardice and the trio’s willingness to lash out at the Woman to save their skins really puts them over the top.
Lacking a likable character is not necessarily a dealbreaker but I was hoping that the story would dip a bit further below the surface after the shadow play. We are shown the husband and wife’s happy reunion after the mass dream that he had her killed and nobody stopped him. But what will happen in the cold light of day, when the memory of the shadow play fades and the Woman becomes bored again? A hint of bitterness at the end would have set off the rest of the film to perfection. The happy ending feels forced and trite and some of the earlier ambiguity would have done wonders.
Further, while the Woman is understandably repulsed by this look into the souls of her admirers, her acceptance of her violent husband seems at odds with the contempt she showed earlier. I realize that the shadow play was meant to be a transformative experience but I’m also pretty sure that I would sleep with one eye open if I were the Woman. Some sort of image reflecting this notion would have been appreciated. (I’m thinking, of course, of the wonderfully ambiguous final iris shot of Werner Krauss in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.)
Design and History
The cinematography was the work of Fritz Arno Wagner while the costumes and art direction were designed by Albin Grau (who is also credited with the “concept”); both men were also veterans of Nosferatu. (Wagner’s filmography is a veritable what’s what of Weimar cinema.) It’s safe to say that Grau and Wagner deserve as much credit as Robison for Warning Shadows’ success. The cinematography, sets and costumes are gloriously stylized and moody, a perfect setting for the dark shadow play. I could go on but you’ve seen the screen caps for yourself.
While this film’s design has a twisted fairy tale quality, we can learn much by studying its historical setting. The decision to set the action in the late eighteenth century and to dress the cast in Directoire fashion was unlikely to have been arbitrary. Post-revolution France, it can be argued, gave birth to the modern concept of clothing-as-self-expression as we know it and the contrast between the clothing of men and women has rarely been as extreme or chaotic. (The filmmakers might have found a parallel between their own post-Kaiser situation and France sans-Bourbon. They had no idea.)
It’s interesting to see what the cast does with this self-expression: the men wear their boots, knee breeches, cockades, cravats and assorted militaristic embellishments while the Woman floats about in a Classical gown that flirts with (and sometimes dives into) complete sheerness. The men dress to impress one another while she has thrown off the more traditional trappings of the aristocracy. She pursues freedom of a sort while her husband and lover are trapped in a cycle of macho posturing.
(You can read more about the symbolism of Directoire fashion in Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror by Ewa Lajer-Burcharth.)
The servants are clad in more tradition garb but the old orders are crumbling and Fritz Rasp’s servant character attempts to take advantage of his newfound freedom by laughing at the same joke that so amuses his mistress and her guests. No soap. Directoire (not to mention liberté, égalité, fraternité) is not for servants. He is slapped in the face for his troubles and seeks revenge, which starts the whole vengeance ball rolling. (You will note that his tattling on the Woman and egging on the Man occur before the shadow play sequence.)
It is also notable that while the main characters dress in a stylized version of historical fashions, the villagers shown at the end of the film are quite normal with little to no stylization. I doubt anything in this film was left to chance and so we can likely take this to be intentional, a symbol of just how twisted the manor house has become.
Title Cards and Lack Thereof
Cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner’s profession may have made him biased but he described title cards as boring and complained that they destroyed the continuity of a movie. Wagner was by no means alone in this opinion, many filmmakers the world over were attempting to minimize and eliminate title cards where possible, and he was proud that Warning Shadows had no cards other than those required to introduce the cast.
For the most part, the actors and director manage the challenge of pure visual storytelling beautifully. The performances are highly stylized, typically so for German art films of the period, but we almost always get the point. Some of the symbols are a bit too on the nose (spilling wine on a white tablecloth as a prelude to bloodshed) but it generally works.
But what about lipreading?
My German was always weak and now it’s downright rusty but I was curious. Was there additional meaning to be derived from the old silent film trick of reading lips? Were non-German viewers missing out?
When I have questions of this nature, I find it helpful to go right to the source. That is, I needed to ask a German silent filmgoer. Peter Schmitt of Skalpell und Katzenklaue very kindly rewatched Warning Shadows after I inquired about an added layer of information available to German speakers. He felt that, in his personal opinion, there wasn’t significant meaning that would be lost for those of us who are not fluent in German, which is wonderful news for foreign viewers. It also says much for the universal nature of the film’s narrative. (Of course, if you do find a super secret hidden meaning, please share!)
Warning Shadows is dark and gorgeous but it falls just short of masterpiece status. Still, it’s highly watchable and the design and cinematography deserve every bit of praise they have received over the years. A very worthy example of the artistic cinema being made in Germany during the silent era.
Where can I see it?
Warning Shadows has been released on DVD by Kino with a very moody score by Donald Sosin. The disc is currently out of print, so keep your eyes peeled for bargains.
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