Warning Shadows (1923)
Warning Shadows (1923)
Director: Arthur Robison
Cast: Alexander Granach, Max Gülstorff, Lilli Herder
Synopsis: An illusionist turns a shadowy puppet show into a violent premonition of what might occur if the wife of a jealous German baron continues to flirt with dinner guests.
To most people, German expressionism means The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Metropolis and perhaps the silent Dr. Mabuse movies, and in fact there weren’t as many expressionist movies made as you probably think. One of the ‘forgotten’ entries in the genre is American director Arthur Robison’s Warning Shadows, an over-the-top examination of an obsessive husband driven to murder by his slatternly wife’s flirtatious ways during the course of one evening. This is probably because Warning Shadows really isn’t a very good movie. It is, however, steeped in the skewed subjective perception of expressionism, and is worth a look if only for the fact that is one of a handful of examples of movies that immersed themselves entirely in the concept rather than flirting with it as did other movies commonly held up as examples of expressionist cinema.
The film takes place in the home of a wealthy German Count (Fritz Kortner – The Razor’s Edge) and his wife (Ruth Weyher, looking not unlike a young Greta Garbo) who are giving a dinner party to four men, all of whom are clearly enamoured of the Countess. Quite who these gentlemen are is never really made clear (despite an opening introduction of the cast of nine lasting nearly five minutes). We must assume they are friends, but they behave rather despicably towards their host. While the Countess preens in front of a full-length mirror, three of the guests pretend to plant kisses on her back in such a way that their shadows look as if lips and flesh really do meet. It’s a pantomime which is observed by her husband through a curtained glass door, and which he clearly misinterprets. He stews, rather than confronting the men, but in reality they are inconsequential, for the wife has chosen as her lover the fourth guest (Gustav von Wangenheim – Nosferatu). Another witness to the carryings on is an impish shadow-player who insinuates himself into the evening with his shadow shows. However, his playful capering disguises a sinister motive which sets in motion a fatal chain of events.
Like many silent movies, Warning Shadows has a twenty minute plot rattling around in an 85 minute running time, and the going is pretty tough at times. The film makes good use of shadows, and skilfully demonstrates how they can be engineered to convince the unwary that they are seeing indiscretions that simply aren’t taking place, but it’s all presented in an irritating, over-the-top, melodramatic fashion which soon becomes drawn-out and boring. The lack of intertitles perhaps puts more pressure on the leads to emphasise their emotions, explaining why Kortner in particular overacts hysterically in a role which admittedly permits him to do little else, but the performances in general are poor, with only the rat-like Fritz Rasp (Metropolis, Diary of a Lost Girl), who was wonderfully slimy in so many German movies, standing out as a servant with his own dubious agenda.
(Reviewed 3rd June 2015)