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 who’ve 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 man’s 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 protagonist’s jealous bent, inflames his host’s jealousy by subtly changing the light so it appears as if one of the suitors is touching the man’s 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 she’s 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 can’t go through with the executions—and is pushed out a second floor window by the fed-up suitors. Of course none of this is “real,” 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 Robison’s 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 he’d have included intertitles explaining the action. That he didn’t renders this provocative relic all the more unforgettable.
WARNING SHADOWS: A NOCTURNAL HALLUCINATION (SCHATTEN: EINE NACHTLICHE HALLUZINATION)
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