Schatten – Eine Nächtliche Halluzination (Shadows—A Nocturnal Hallucination), known in the U.S. as Warning Shadows, released 16 October 1923 in Germany; 5 September 1924 in France; 27 April 1925 in Finland; 9 August 1927 in the U.S.; and 16 January 1928 in Portugal. Like just about all German films from the Twenties, it too is part of the most venerable German Expressionism canon.
The Expressionism kicks off with hands and the actors appearing across a silhouette screen as they’re introduced. I love how many silent and early sound films have credits with the actors in motion, not just as a list of names.
A 19th century count (prolific actor Fritz Kortner) and his wife (Ruth Weyher) hold a dinner party which four of her suitors attend. Not only are they fighting for her attention, they’re also fighting with one another. When the count spies on them behind a curtain, the shadows fool him into believing she’s being felt up by the suitors, though they haven’t touched her. Clearly, this marriage is in deep trouble.
A shadow-player (Alexander Granach) arrives and begins showing off his skills to those in attendance. He then hypnotizes everyone and gives them a vision of what might happen if the suitors don’t quit their amorous schemes, and if the count remains jealous.
This hypnotic vision speaks to their very real fears, obsessions, jealousies, and erotic desires, and heads in a more and more horrific trajectory. Or is it just a vision?
The shadow-play was designed, produced, and presented by silhouettist, painter, and graphic artist Ernest Moritz Engert (who was born in Japan).
Besides the obvious artistic, atmospheric use of light and shadows, this film is very artsy for its complete lack of intertitles. All we get are the credits introducing each character and her or his role. Even F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), which is famous for telling an entire story without intertitles, gives us the courtesy of one at the beginning of the Epilogue.
While I would’ve appreciated at least a few intertitles, for a basic grounding in exactly what’s going on, the story nevertheless flows very well without them. The total lack of intertitles also helps to create a very atmospheric, foreboding mood. So much of silent and early sound horror is more about the overall mood, not in-your-face screams. The mood is what creates the feeling of horror.
I wouldn’t recommend this as an ideal first or early silent, but for those who are long-established connoisseurs of the artform, it’s well-worth checking out. It was my 1,181st silent.