When thinking of Expressionist cinema, some titles are more impressed in the common imagination (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu), but Warning Shadows by Arthur Robison is both the perfect example and the supreme synthesis of the entire movement of Expressionist cinema. True to its title, shadows are a predominant part of the picture; they fill the screen, acting as if they were the main characters. One of them is always menacing or sneaking around a human character, influencing his judgment and behavior, distorting reality with its appearance.
Shadows belie the truth: they are not authentic but only a reproduction of the real, and they assume a different meaning for each one of us. Their graceful movements, dancing over the walls, may be misinterpreted by human sight; they operate under different rules of space and time. They do not merely represent us, but something of our inner self. Like a film strip, they are like a negative exposure of our existence, revealing the yin and yang of mankind as light and shade.
The story of Warning Shadows is kept to a simple but effective plot, with Shakespeare’s Othello serving as the main source of inspiration. By and large, Expressionism was more interested in allegories told with utter simplicity from essential elements. Expressionist passions, desires and torments go back to the 19th century with its “Sturm und Drang” movement in Germany and Gothic art and literature in England. But Robison is also a pioneer of avant-garde, his film a very modern, meta-linguistic exercise, in which different devices and languages are used to tell the story. A mix of disparate genres and styles combine to create a unique and modern form of cinema.
Within the film the characters attend a performance that pays homage to the origins of film, such as magic lantern shows and Chinese shadow puppets. But as the shadows take over, creating a film within a film, Robison also shows the unique power of the cinematic medium. The shadows come to life and take the place of the real people, projecting for them what impending future is reserved to them if they aren’t careful. Murder, adultery and misfortune will crash upon their heads and destroy their lives.
The illusion has the astonishing power to make them reflect on right and wrong in pursuing the fleeting pleasures of the flesh. Robison seems to suggest that movies have the power to influence judgments and decisions of the common people; he perfectly understands not only the utility, but also the dangerous power of the moving images.
Michele De Angelis is a film producer and DVD production manager based in Italy. He has written about movies since his childhood and presently runs the Kinoglazorama Spectacular blog.