Saturday, 11 January 2014

Shadow play… Warning Shadows (1923) with John Sweeney, BFI

“The play's the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

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!
Events take place within a noble household somewhere in the romantic Germanic past… a dark and shadowy night. Within the household there is intrigue aplenty with the count (Fritz Kortner, later to be cuckolded by Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, he obviously had that kind of face…) jealously watching his vivacious wife (Ruth Weyher) as she toys with the affections of a chivalrous young man (Gustav von Wangenheim) in quite superb 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…

Deceptive shadows...
This sexual obsessiveness is mirrored by the interactions between the staff, with the head footman (Fritz Rasp) keeping a watchful eye on the maid (Lilli Herder) whilst three gentlemen guests - Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Max Gülstorff and Ferdinand von Alten repeatedly move their hands to mime the female form. Then as her ladyship checks her appearance in the mirror they take turns in placing their shadowy hands on her shadowed form… All the count can see are the shadows and his jealous doubts are given form.

Alexander Granach
Watching all of this is a mysterious traveller (Alexander Granach) who turns out to be a shadow player… he pushes his way into the household past an older servant (Karl Platen) with his bag of shadow puppets and, after impressing the Count with his ombromanie, he is allowed to present his shadow play to the dinner guests…

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...
Then the stage is set and the guests watch in a line as the shadow play begins. It’s a story of a Chinese nobleman, his wife and another man who may come between them… as the guests watch, a shadow moves across them and suddenly they are the shadows watching themselves as the night descends into the darkness of their desires and thoughts are translated into actions.

The count's worst nightmare...
The Lady takes herself off to her room to be soon followed by the young man as all of the Count’s fears come to pass… and as his blood rises he sees himself revealed as a cuckold as his shadow falls on a deer’s antlers in his study (horns and antlers were a common symbol of a "cuckolded" husband back in old Europe…). He sets about wreaking a terrible revenge one that shames the entire household in its prolonged, brutal inevitability.

Revenge is bitter
And yet… suddenly the light shifts again. All is well and they appear to have experienced a collective hallucination courtesy of the mysterious shadowgrapher who, restoring their shadows to their rightful places, plays out the final part of the Chinese shadow play against a backdrop of their relief.

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...
Robison directs with aplomb and plaudits must go to his cameraman, Fritz Arno Wagner who captures the dark with such precision. The cast pantomime superbly with Kortner blowing his gaskets and Ruth Weyher sashaying convincingly as the vamp with the lamp behind her…

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…

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