A play within a play within a film, the watchers watching the watched, watching their shadow selves and occasionally some shadow puppets… Warning Shadows carries meaning in every dark corner of the screen.
Originally entitled Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (Shadows - a Nocturnal Hallucination), its simpler English title hints at a more defined meaning but this is expressionism based in uncertain reality and the darkness comes from its cast and characters as much from an absence of light.
Directed by Arthur Robison it was based on an idea by Munau’s Nosferatu collaborator, Albin Grau, who Bryony Dixon, the BFI’s silent archive curator, described as the intellect behind this film in her introduction. She warned us to watch the shadows and not to take anything at face value: sound advice for this most artful film.
True enough there were many well-wrought shadows that suggested physical intimacy when there was none and showed the power of both shadows and projected light to deceive. We witness the inversion of actors with their shadows and then watch a shadow puppet play over their shoulders as they gaze up at the light stage… Who watches the watchers? We do.
How much of what we see in the film is meant to be “real” is open to debate and the film leaves its audience to their own interpretations without a single title card to guide them. It is very much a pantomime and it is played out at its own pace. I’ve seen some reviews criticise both the acting style and the speed of the narrative but that underestimates the challenge presented by this complex offering: which bits of the story are surface narrative and which are taking place underneath and within?
The opening titles immediately indicate that this will be an unusual show as the shadows from two spread hands open the curtains on a stage where the shadows loom larger than their subjects. The actors take a bow – literally – overshadowed… every one replaced by a silhouette as the shadowy hand reveals the troop one by one.
|Ruth Weyher and Gustav von Wangenheim in those pants!|
The count thinks back to the unquestioned passion of their early marriage and his dreams are disturbed by the lustful inquisitiveness of all the men around his young wife as she sweeps through their house, a diaphanous distraction frankly all too impressed with herself…
Under the mischievous gaze of the little man, the party progresses with much wine consumed. The males focus increasingly on the lady – jealous, lustful and lovelorn in the case of the stricken youngster. As she dances the Shadowplayer moves the candles behind to reveal the outline of her body to the rapt watchers.
|The saucy shadowplayer...|
|The count's worst nightmare...|
|Revenge is bitter|
Has he saved them from their fate, was this play a warning or are they in some way still bewitched? Answers on a postcard please… As he leaves the village he straddles a large pig a sure sign of devilment. But he leaves the guests changed, resolved to avoid the potential catastrophe they have just experienced or set on a longer course to the same destination. The answer is in the shadows…
|Shadows switch sides...|
John Sweeney is one of the leading silent accompanists and played along with expert restraint and expression, illuminating events with romantic flourishes and gothic grace.
An absorbing live experience, you can also watch Warning Shadows on a DVD from Kino – it’s available direct or from Amazon… a film to make you ponder as you watch it over.
Remember how much trouble Peter Pan had in catching his shadow? I now know a little about how that feels…