Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Warning Shadows

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Warning Shadows

In Warning Shadows, a German silent film, a travelling entertainer shows up at a mansion to put on a show. The owner of the estate is married to a beautiful woman, and he jealously watches as she flirts with several other men. Then the entertainer puts on a shadow play with puppets, mesmerizing - even hypnotizing - his audience. What ensues is an increasingly violent exhibition of the rich man's jealousy and his wife's treachery. Reflections and shadows abound, sometimes illuminating hidden realities (the husband sees a suitor leaving his wife's bedroom in a mirror), at other times creating illusions (in the picture above the men are actually not caressing the woman - it's a trick of the lighting inside the house). The spectators' worst fantasies are played out as the husband forces the suitors to stab his wife and is then himself thrown out a window. But it turns out this was all a vision conjured by the entertainer and as the audience awakens from their disturbing collective hallucination, they take heed of these "warning shadows" and back off their decadent game-playing.


With its self-conscious use of the proscenium and shadowplay, Warning Shadows is very much a metaphor for the power of the screen to envelop viewers and engage their most primal urges and desires, especially in terms of sexuality. Innocuous misunderstandings provide a key which unlocks sexual paranoia, violent passions, and acute self-loathing. The entertainer is an ambiguous figure: ultimately his actions lead to a greater understanding as the spectators unleash their subconscious fears and anger - showmanship as a kind of psychoanalytic release. But his demeanor is disconcerting and he seems to take pleasure in subverting and disturbing the audience for its own sake, regardless of the consequences.

There are striking visual analogs to these themes. When the mesmerization of the audience begins, the entertainer waves a hand over them and their shadows retreat until they have disappeared; the shadow lives are suddenly reintegrating themselves with the spectators' bodies and coming to the fore. Shifting light is employed throughout to highlight illusionism: the entertainer creates shadow puppets with his hands, manipulating their position in relation to shadows of larger and smaller objects and people, all in order to create the proper perspective. In fact, the film has some of the most creative uses of single-source lighting I've seen.

This is a relief as some of the staging is a little, well, stagey (though this too may be by design: the proceedings open and close with the parting of a curtain). And, as is often the case with German expressionism, actions (and actors) have a tendency to become drawn-out. But the film often acquires the pull of a dream, aided by a substantial break from most contemporary silents: there are no intertitles to interrupt the visual flow. A few years later, F.W. Murnau would demonstrate what was (for my money) a more fluid, dynamic, and thus more effective title-less approach in The Last Laugh, but still, Arthur Robison (director of Warning Shadows) is to be commended. I've written a lot about the use of titles in silent film, and at their best they are a creative, dynamic part of the style but there's no doubt Robison's technique was an advance to the art (though I doubt he was the first to do so).


That said, the lack of titles plus, admittedly, my own tiredness as I watched Warning Shadows tonight made me feel as if I was missing quite a bit. I'm still not sure what was going on with the servants, and my attention flagged during certain long passages. I may return to the film and after re-viewing, revise this post. While enjoying the challenge of posting every day, it's becoming more difficult as my workload looks to be increasing, and on another note, the political season heats up. I like to keep this blog focused on movies (though come late October, I will probably be devoting a lot of time to political docs in honor of the election), and I've been tuned out of politics since the drawn-out race for the Dem nomination. But the conventions have gotten me back into the swing of things, and it's been a fascinating week which only promises to get more exciting as the general election begins in earnest. That's neither here nor there in regards to Warning Shadows, but a caveat was in order.

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