Saturday, September 12, 2015

#215: Warning Shadows (Arthur Robison, 1923)

Warning Shadows, a fascinating German Expressionist oddity, is a silent film in the purest sense of the term. There are no intertitles, leaving the film to its own entirely visual devices to tell the story. The film uses shadow more than any other I've ever seen (it's right there in the title), and the plot depends on characters looking at the shapes made by shadows on the wall, through curtains, and projected on a hanging sheet. The film is pretty self-referential for 1923, with the act of watching movies and voyeurism in general its true subjects aside from the moralistic message-making discouraging married women from flirting with single gentlemen.
The story begins with a wealthy baron (Fritz Kortner) and his lovely wife (Ruth Weyher) giving a fancy dinner for four gentlemen. (None of the characters' names are revealed in the film.) Unfortunately for the baron, these men have the hots for his lady, and she loves the attention. She's particularly into the overtures made by the youngest, handsomest gentlemen (the awesomely named Gustav von Wangenheim) and makes it quietly but perfectly clear she's willing to reciprocate his affections. Our baron is a tightly strung dude at his best, and when he sees the shadows of three of the gentlemen caressing his wife all over through a curtain, he understandably loses it. Unfortunately for the baron, this shadowplay is a proto-sitcom hilarious misunderstanding. The non-von Wangenheims are an immature, horny, prankster bunch, and they notice if they stand behind the woman and make lewd gestures by the curtain, their shadows look like they are groping her. The baron saw some bawdy pranks, not the actual touching of his lady love.
Compounding the drama, the servant holding the candles (Eugen Rex) can't stop smiling at the shadow pranks and is slapped by the baron's wife for his lack of composure. Understandably pissed, he allows the baron to continue thinking his house guests have been taking liberties. It's not the trio of lewd goofballs the baron should be worried about, though. Handsome young von Wangenheim is making eyes at his wife, and they keep brushing up against each other and almost holding hands. The baron starts stomping around his castle like a madman and sees a creepy-looking shadowplayer (Alexander Granach) putting on a shadow show on the wall for the servants. He gets an idea and convinces the shadowplayer to put on a cautionary tale for his guests and wife, showing them the terrible consequences of their flirtatious behavior. The shadowplay seems to exert a spell over the castle, and events in the story are brought to life. Things get dark.
Though Warning Shadows is more novelty than masterpiece, it's filled with beautiful shots that must have taken a tremendous amount of work to set up, particularly a moment when the shadowplayer elongates the shadows of the dinner guests. I'm a sucker for screen-within-a-screen shots, and Warning Shadows is full of them, most strikingly in the shots of the backs of the dinner guests heads as they watch the shadowplay on the movie screen-like hanging sheet. It's interesting that this early in the medium, a filmmaker is already depicting what it looks like to watch a movie on the big screen. The romance, mythology, and seduction of shadows and light projected on a white screen in a darkened room. That's the real subject of this film.
Director Arthur Robison has an interesting history. The son of German Jews who had moved to the United States, Robison was born in Chicago but moved with his family back to Germany when he was a child. Educated and raised in Germany, he attended medical school at the University of Munich. He worked as a doctor for several years before falling in love with film, and he made his first feature in 1916. Warning Shadows was his third surviving feature. He made 17 more before his death in 1935 at the age of 52.  

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