director Arthur Robison
Warning Shadows or as it is in the original German, Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (“Shadows – a Nocturnal Hallucination”), is an obscure but impressive sample of German Expressionism, nowhere as well known as its contemporaries. It may not achieve the sublime qualities of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) or Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), but it has many interesting elements and is well worth discovering.
An entertainer (Alexander Granach) who employs shadow puppets visits a mansion at a dinner party and uses his craft and crafts to play a twisted morality show on the dinner guests. All of the guests are lusting after the wife (Ruth Weyher) which is driving her husband (Fritz Kortner) into fits of rage. The play goes from paper cut-outs performing on a screen by candlelight to an inverted shadow world, where the players act out their inner desires.
The entertainer, the shadowplayer, invokes the cinema in his pre-cinematic entertainments. The best scene (or effect) is when he inverts the shadows of the guests, pulling the shadows into the people and then flipping them from the viewing side to the side of the stage/screen. His role may be that of trickster, but what he wreaks is a morality play, unleashing the inner shadows and showing what will come of it. Whether Freudian or not, it is definitely highly figurative psychology on display.
Director Arthur Robison opts to tell the story sans intertitles, so the story ads no explanatory words to break to scenes. This is a very effective technique, one not often used in silent cinema, already so visual a narrative medium.
Apparently, the film was made by many of those who had worked on Murnau’s Nosferatu, including art director/designer Albin Grau, following the fall-out over the rights to the “Dracula” story that ended the studio at which is was made. I recommend reading the write-up about Schatten at The Devil’s Manor, quite informative.
The opening sequence, which introduces the players and their roles is the one part of the film with titles at all. It’s also a very inventive and theatrical sequence, featuring shadow hands grabbing or erasing each figure.
The whole film doesn’t retain the same level of visual inventiveness throughout and can drag through sequences of more narrative build up, but it is tremendously interesting at its best moments, at times quite funny, and extremely unusual.