Director Arthur Robison makes shadows real in a 1923 German film called “Warning Shadows.” The film features a wealthy Count (Fritz Kortner) and Countess (Ruth Weyher) who host a party in a 19th century mansion for three gentlemen and a young man. When an itinerant entertainer shows up at the door, the servants attempt to throw him out, but he puts up his hands and demonstrates his amazing ability to project shadow puppets. Intrigued, the husband allows the “Shadowplayer” to attend the party and entertain his guests. The servants hang a sheet on a wall and the entertainment begins. The film soon develops a dark and horrific theme.
Judging from the show the Shadowplayer performs for the guests, he seems to know the intrigue going on at the party. In the first act, the husband, upon arriving home, finds his wife in what seems like a compromising position with 3 of the guests, but the husband may just be misinterpreting shadows. Later, when a young man flirts with the wife, the husband cannot contain his jealousy. Nevertheless, he manages to avoid taking action until the Shadowplayer puts the entire household under a magical spell.
The cast includes two women, both of whom are objects of great attention by the many males in the household. The Countess flirtatiously prances about and plays the gracious hostess despite her husband’s consistant brooding over the attention she receives. The male servants find distraction in the comely maid, who remains completely standoffish to their attention. The magical happenings on this night infect the relationships of everyone, and the story deteriorates quickly into horror.
The film uses no intertitle cards, so we’re never prompted beforehand to understand the motivations of the characters. With no narration or dialogue, we’re left to connect the gestures of the characters with the extremely complicated movements of the shadow figures projected by the Shadowplayer. The shadows cast by the characters themselves also convey a hidden and dark meaning, as they grow and shrink in proportion to their emotional impact.
The filmmakers and cast must have done a tremendous amount of rehearsing to make this film work. The Shadowplayer, played by Alexander Granach, projects a sizable number of characters on the wall, and that requires special lighting, timing and practice. The ensemble cast make sure to hit their spots, and the camera stays back in some scenes to fully record their interplay. I wouldn’t call Warning Shadows a masterpiece, but it certainly delivers on its daring approach.