8 September 2006 | Bunuel1976
Warning Shadows - A Nocturnal Hallucination (Arthur Robison, 1923) ***1/2
This had been something of a holy grail for me: while there's very little that's actually written about it (even following this DVD release from Kino - I came across only 1 online review!), its reputation as a highpoint of the German Expressionist movement had always preceded it and I had personally been intrigued for years by a single still from the film in the British periodical from the early 80s, "The Movie".
Well, having at long last watched the film (thanks, Kino, also the 'rescuers' of another rare Silent classic - Paul Leni's THE MAN WHO LAUGHS ), I can say that it's a genuine masterwork which well and truly belongs with the other classics of the early German cinema (particularly the Expressionist horror films, even if WARNING SHADOWS is not a genre effort per se). Still, there are undeniable macabre overtones in the story about a dinner party comprising a jealous man, his flirtatious wife and her four suitors that's 'invaded' by the owner of a traveling puppet-show who may or may not be a magician as well.
Actually, the film looks forward to several others in its theme and approach: first of all, its complete lack of intertitles (this is a purely visual film) precedes F.W. Murnau's more celebrated THE LAST LAUGH (1924), the silhouetted puppet show anticipates Lotte Reiniger's THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926; the first 'animated' film) and the 'film-within-a-film' scenario (where we have the magician 'borrowing' the shadows of the guests in order to allow them to see for themselves what is to be the tragic outcome of the night) also looks forward to a similar 'morality play' performance at the centre of another Murnau film, TARTUFFE (1925)!
As I said, the film's look - sets by Albin Grau and camera-work by Fritz Arno Wagner (both of whom had worked on Murnau's NOSFERATU ) - and the techniques deployed - particular attention is given to the lighting scheme as, in the absence of dialogue, this functions as much as an illumination of the various characters and what they may be thinking as the actors interpreting them! - are incredible (even after all these years): the plot itself is very simple and, in fact, if the film has a fault it's that it takes this a bit too slowly; all the various characters are introduced at the very start in a prologue which occupies the first five minutes of the picture! Then again, by the time the magician's terrifying and murderous visions had reached their crescendo (this here is, by far, the best section of the film), I had become so completely absorbed that I was actually surprised when the picture shifted back to the main narrative, indicating that it was nearing conclusion!
As befits an Expressionist film, the acting style (but also the make-up) is slightly exaggerated with the result that some of it may seem awkward today (the leading lady and the three elderly suitors, for instance). Much better are the three more notable names in the cast - Fritz Kortner as the husband, Gustav von Wangeheim (who had been Jonathan Harker in NOSFERATU) as the infatuated youth and especially Alexander Granach (yet another NOSFERATU alumnus, where he had made a creepy Renfield) as the scruffy-looking and somewhat unhinged magician; indeed, the latter makes for a truly memorable character - and I could just imagine him going to the next house or the next village after the end of our story to provide some more of his specialized 'entertainment'!
The figure of director Arthur Robison, then, is something of an enigma: he was an American who ended up working in Germany; I haven't seen any of his other work and doubt how much of it actually survives at this juncture - but he did contrive to make the original version of THE INFORMER (featuring, apart from a very young Ray Milland, German actors Lars Hanson and Lya De Putti!) in Britain in 1929, while in 1935 came his remake of the oft-filmed German folktale THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE, starring the great Anton Walbrook in the famous dual role...