Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Warning Shadows (1923)

Director: Arthur Robison                                Writer: Albin Grau
Film Score: Ernst Riege                                Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner
Starring: Fritz Kortner, Ruth Weyher, Gustav von Wagenheim and Alexander Granach

The subtitle of this film is “A Nocturnal Hallucination” which, in keeping with many Weimar era silent films, particularly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, sort of telegraphs the ending. Nevertheless, Warning Shadows is a strange and eerie film that unfolds at a maddeningly slow pace, though to be fair that is really only from a modern perspective. To get the full effect of the lighting and effects work it was probably necessary to slow the pace of the film down to allow contemporary audiences to fully abort the artistry on the screen. In addition, the film contained no title cards, and so it does take some time on the part of the viewer before things gradually fall into place concerning the plot. The team that produced the film is part of the group that worked on Nosferatu with F.W. Murnau, principally Albin Grau who is responsible for the story itself, and cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner. Visually the film falls somewhere between the heavily staged Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the more naturalistic sets for Nosferatu. Director Arthur Robison was an American but had grown up in Germany and was certainly every bit as conscious of the Zeitgeist as the rest of the filmmakers of that period, as this film fits perfectly into that aesthetic and captures the particularly German fascination with the idea of the Doppelgänger.

The film begins on a stage, with the cast introduced by appearing before the screen and behind it as a shadow. Act One begins in a town square at night, with Alexander Granach skulking about. Gustav von Wagenheim is looking up longingly at the window where Fritz Kortner can be seen kissing his wife, Ruth Weyher, in silhouette. When he leaves she looks out of the window and sees the young man, who is then admitted into the house. Kortner, still in Weyher’s bedroom, remembers their wedding night and can barely contain his anger. The three other gentlemen now enter the square and are let inside while von Wagenheim gives Weyher flowers, all while Kortner is haunted by the images of all of the men trying to obtain her. As the three gentlemen pretend to kiss Weyher’s shadow, Kortner sees this from the other room and believes it’s real. She dismisses the servant who finds humor in this, and when Kortner confronts him the servant attempts to get back at her by telling Kortner that what he believes is true. Furious but composed he finds her entertaining all four men, who shake his hand, before all of them sit down to dine together. Kortner’s rage is obvious, though not to the diners. Meanwhile Granach is eventually invited in to entertain the party with his shadow show, with seemingly disastrous consequences, especially when Kortner becomes convinced that his wife’s hospitality is proof of her infidelity, which in the case of von Wagenheim, turns out to be true. Finally Kortner takes action with deadly results.

All of the acting is heavily stylized, as it was in Nosferatu. But since the earlier film dealt outright with a supernatural subject it seems to be less obtrusive than it is here. Still, this is pantomime rather than true acting and it does fit with the mildly expressionistic set design and the illusory nature of the story. The lighting is easily the most impressive aspect of the film. Fritz Arno Wagner is able to cast shadows off of all the actors behind them throughout the entire film. One almost expects the shadows to take on a life of their own, independent from the characters. And in a way they do. Alexander Granach and Gustav von Wagenheim are both back from Murnau’s vampire film as well. Granach is a bit more controlled in his role here, and has some impressive moments, especially when he’s putting on the shadow show. Wagenheim, on the other hand, undoubtedly had the ability to some extraordinary work during this period, but his overacting--again, part of the aesthetic of the time--does him no favors. Fritz Kortner and Ruth Weyher as the leads are just as hampered, Kortner going well over the top with self torture, and Weyher playing to the back row of the theater as well. Warning Shadows is nowhere near as artistic as its more exalted films from the same period, but it does make for fascinating viewing and rewards the viewers’ patience in the end.

No comments:

Post a Comment