Warning Shadows (Schatten: Eine Nachtliche Halluzination) 1923

Director: Arthur Robison

A jealous husband, a philandering wife, a group of lustful party guests, and the scene is set. Enter a mischievous shadow player, who illuminates the repressed desires of those present for all to see... and the brighter the light, the darker - and more deadly - the shadow. 'A Nocturnal Hallucination' from the men behind Nosferatu.

Four guests arrive for a dinner party at the house of a wealthy nobleman. The youngest (the 'Youth') is having an affair with the nobleman's wife, and the other three 'Gentlemen' have equally amorous intentions. A man with a travelling bag and an impudent grin watches them arrive from the courtyard outside.

A nocturnal hallucination

Inside the house, passions are running high. The Woman secretly shares a moment alone with her lover, while her husband paces around their marital bed, disturbed by bitter memories of happier times. Later, she preens in front of a mirror as the three Gentlemen pretend to embrace her shadow, enraging the nobleman when he sees their silhouettes moving from behind a curtain. A servant, given a humiliating dressing-down by the Woman, retaliates by slyly kindling her husband's jealousy even further.

Presently, the man from the courtyard coaxes his way inside and presents himself as a travelling entertainer and shadow puppeteer. The nobleman, amused by his jests and sleight-of-hand, allows him to put on a shadow-play. The entertainer spins a tale of a lover's triangle, mirroring the events at the party that night. As the guests all watch transfixed, he draws out their shadows from beneath them. Their bodies fade away and their shadow-selves are brought to life, setting loose all the violent passions that had until then remained below the surface...

The Entertainer (Alexander Granach) stealing shadows
It's a measure of the overall quality of German cinema during the Weimar Republic that a film as accomplished as Warning Shadows is so little known in comparison with works like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) or Nosferatu (1922). Like its more famous forerunners, it belongs to the expressionist school, where (usually turbulent) inner emotional states are given exaggerated physical form. But what makes the film unique is the way that the plot itself playfully exploits that same premise, presenting us with a multi-layered study of art and human nature where form and content are practically indistinguishable.
Fritz Korner' shadow wears the cuckold's horns

After the cast are introduced, by appearing on stage as if part of a shadow-play themselves, there are no titles in Warning Shadows - even the story's three acts are introduced by a silhouetted hand holding up the appropriate number of fingers. But the plot is simple enough that we don't need to know what the characters might be saying, and in fact, conventional means of communication don't count for much anyway. The real story is told through the 'shadow-selves' of the players, an elaboration on the 'doppelganger' theme that had been a staple of German literature for centuries.

For the first half of the film, the shadows and reflections cast by the players reveal, directly or indirectly, the true motives behind their actions. They might show an embrace or hands holding when no such thing is taking place, or inspire strong emotions that before had been hidden from view. After the Entertainer brings those shadow-forms to life in the 'nocturnal hallucination' of the title, the cast are given a glimpse of what happens when those emotions are allowed free rein. The Woman thoughtlessly amuses herself with her expensive trinkets; the Man gives in to homicidal impulses after seeing himself wearing the horns of a cuckold - or perhaps a raging demon; the Servant indulges in violent oppression of his mistress, and guilt and shame drive the shallow, sardonic Gentlemen to committing double murder.

And it's not just the cast who get a long hard look at themselves. The performance of the shadow-play almost acts as a film-within-a-film, and the set design sometimes resembles a theatre's proscenium arch, hinting perhaps that the Entertainer's shadow-play corresponds to the one that we the cinema audience are watching. A sly wink at the audience, or an illustration of the seductive power of the moving image?

Like Nosferatu, the film was the brainchild of producer, art director and occultist Albin Grau. His supposed inspiration was an illustration from occult author Eliphas Levi's book The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic, where the shadow cast by a hand in papal blessing reveals the sinister outline of a demon. The inscription roughly translates as, "Through the blessing of the Lord, the curse of the Antichrist is foreshadowed". This highly complex symbol could be related to Carl Jung's theory of the 'shadow', or the repressed unconscious. As the presumed author of Warning Shadows, Grau was probably more familiar with Levi than he was with Jung, but the film says as much about psychological repression as it does about the struggle between good and evil.

Warning Shadows was produced by Pan-Film, a new company set up by Grau and his associates in the wake of the legal fight with Florence Stoker over Nosferatu. Stoker had forced Nosferatu's production company Prana-Film into bankruptcy, obliging Grau to start afresh, while recruiting some of the earlier film's cast and crew. Gustav von Wangenheim and Alexander Granach, who had been Hutter and Knock respectively, took lead roles. Fritz Arno Wagner got back behind the camera, having just completed Zwischen Abend Und Morgen (Between Evening and Morning, 1923) with Warning Shadows' director Robison, an American who had lived in Germany from the age of eight. 

The talent assembled for this project sadly didn't save it from obscurity. Later critics recognised it as a classic of its type, but contemporary audiences were indifferent; Pan-Film shared the fate of its predecessor and folded after just one production. Grau worked with Robison again, as a set designer on Robison's Pietro der Korsar (Peter the Pirate, 1925) for UFA. Wagner made several films with Fritz Lang, as did surly Servant Fritz Rasp: he was the 'Thin Man' in Metropolis (1927) whose entire role was thought lost until the recent rediscovery of an almost-complete print of the film in Argentina.

The Trickster?
Can we lastly return to Carl Jung? We can see one of his archetypes here in Alexander Granach's Entertainer -- the Trickster, an amoral symbol of mischief and rebellion who appears in the myths and stories of almost every culture, as Loki, as King Lear's Fool, Brer Rabbit, Batman's Joker. We could suggest another identity for this enigmatic figure, last seen riding away on the back of a pig. He may not have the usual horns and forked tail, but his uncanny hypnotic powers and gift for deception suggest a quite well-known personage acting under an assumed identity. Perhaps it's that faint whiff of brimstone...

End Credits:
Fritz Korner (Man), Ruth Weyher (Woman), Gustav von Wangenheim (Youth), Eugen Rex, Max Gulstorff, Ferdinand von Alten (Three Gentlemen), Alexander Granach (Entertainer), Fritz Rasp (Servant), Carl Platen (2nd Servant), Lilli Herder (Maid).
Concept and design: Albin Grau, Photography: Fritz Arno Wagner, Editing: Rudolf Schneider and Arthur Robison, Original Score: Ernst Reige.
Pan-Film, Germany
Running time 86 mins.

Warning Shadows (Kino)


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  5. thank you for this! just wondering, do you have a source for Albin Grau being inspired by the papal blessing illustration from Levi's book? Or remember where you came across the idea? I would love to investigate this connection further!

    1. Hi there, Anon - thanks for visiting. Yes, I had a source but unfortunately I can no longer find it! (A good excuse to start listing source materials at the end of posts...) Instead I can recommend an article at www.raymondowen.com called "Nosferatu and the Occult(ists)", which deals with Grau's occult career and was a valuable source of background info for this post.