When I first saw Artur Robison’s Warning Shadows (1923), I was interested in it as part of a project focused on gender and film, so I watched it with an eye to its odd gender dynamics, asking how they might reflect on changing norms and roles of the time. Those gender dynamics do stand out: the narrative revolves around a couple whose relationship is threatened by the husband’s jealousy and the wife’s open flirtation when they host four of the woman’s admirers at a dinner party in their chateau. The entire movie takes place in a single night, but it’s far from straightforward: the party is interrupted by the arrival of an entertainer who performs a shadow-play for the group, then hypnotizes them so that they ‘watch’ – as do we – their alter egos act out the fatal result of their hallucinatory infidelity.
The movie is peculiar and fascinating, and over the years, I’ve found that I see something new each time I watch it, yet another element that speaks to the innovations and preoccupations that dominated German society and culture in 1923. The entertainer who performs the shadow plays and hypnotic parlor tricks that reveal the danger of the couple’s situation: isn’t he a cinematic heir of the magicians and prestidigitators who dominated carnival grounds and were among the first to bring moving pictures to the audience? The shadows, silhouettes, and reflections that trick the viewers’ eyes: aren’t they precisely what makes up film? The effect on the couple and their guests of watching that story play out on the screen before them: doesn’t that pose questions about the spectator’s relationship to cinema?
This multiplicity is what makes the movie both exciting to watch and potentially challenging. Given just how full of references and allusions Warning Shadows is, how can viewers without a background in Weimar culture identify and fully understand how these connect with and speak to the cultural context? Warning Shadows is fun to watch regardless, but becomes even more so when you have enough background to make it not just visually and narratively peculiar and compelling, but also culturally revealing.
In writing this book, I wanted to give today’s viewers enough cultural background that they will be able to recognize and contextualize some of the threads that run throughthe movie. The book is not by any means exhaustive: there is much more that could be said regarding the motifs and themes that I identified, and there are surely additional ones that could be explored. But that’s not an accident: one of the things that I find most interesting about Warning Shadows is that it can’t be reduced to a work engaging with a single issue; that it seems to resist, in fact, one coherent interpretation in favor of reflecting in multiple and at times contradictory ways on its cultural environment. I’m not aiming to offer a complete analysis of the movie – doing so would require ignoring too many ambiguities and incidentals. Rather, I’m trying to begin tracing where those ambiguities and incidentals can lead us and how going down the occasional rabbit-hole of historical contextualization can reveal new and exciting ways for modern viewers to understand the film.
Looking at Warning Shadows in this way – as a movie in which so many of the pressing issues, interests, and anxieties of its time are reflected – should push us to see its significance to the study of early film and to consider it with the same kind of curiosity and deliberation with which we regard the classics of Weimar film, like Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Warning Shadows is a film that speaks not just to changing gender roles, but also to the position of film as art, to the structures of vision and seeing, to the hypnotic quality of cinema and the terrifying potential of hypnosis, both real and cinematic. My hope is that this book will spur more people to watch Warning Shadows and to discover how complex and culturally significant – and, of course, fun to watch – it is.
This guest post was written by ANJEANA K. HANS, Associate Professor of German Studies at Wellesley College.