Monday, October 02, 2017

Schatten / Warning Shadows

Schatten (DE 1923). D: Arthur Robison. Ruth Weyher, Gustav von Wangenheim. Photo: Cineteca Italiana, Milano.

Schatten: eine nächtliche Halluzination / Varjoja / Skuggor / Schatten: une hallucination nocturne – Le Montreur d’ombres. DE 1923. D: Arthur Robison, story, des, cost: Albin Grau, scen: Rudolf Schneider, Artur Robison, photog: Fritz Arno Wagner, cast: Fritz Kortner (the man), Ruth Weyher (the woman), Gustav von Wangenheim (the youth), Alexander Granach (ombromane / the traveling shadow player), Eugen Rex, Max Gülstorff, Ferdinand von Alten (gentlemen), Fritz Rasp, Karl Platen (servants), Lilly Harder (lady’s maid), prod: Pan-Film GmbH, Berlin, for Deutsch-Amerikanische Film-Union AG (Dafu), Berlin, filmed: 5.1923, Lixie-Atelier, Berlin-Weißensee, censor date: 19.7.1923 (B.07460, 1721 m), première: 16.10.1923, U.T. Nollendorfplatz, Berlin.
    35 mm, 1926 m, 93′ (18 fps), tinted; main title: FRA; no intertitles.
    Source: Cineteca Italiana, Milano.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone: Cineteca Italiana 70.
    Music: Daan van den Hurk, Frank Bockius.
    Teatro Verdi, no intertitles, 2 Oct 2017.

Anton Kaes (GCM 2017): "Artur Robison’s 1923 film Schatten: Eine nächtliche Halluzination (Warning Shadows: Nocturnal Hallucinations) offers bold insights into the status and function of cinema itself. What was film and what could it do? Schatten makes good on the promise of silent cinema to tell a story by means of images alone. Foregoing explanatory title cards, the film explores the interplay of light and shadow and focuses on the very possibilities of cinematic expression. The film’s preoccupation with shadows as ghostly doubles galvanizes the realm of imagination, illusion, and dark fantasy; it sheds light on a hidden and repressed reality that “shadows” the tangible one. Although an everyday phenomenon, shadows nevertheless evince a sense of uncanny mystery that dates back to Plato’s allegory of the cave. For Maxim Gorky in 1895, the movies represented no less than the “kingdom of shadows.”"

"Schatten experiments with the effects achieved by projection, not only in the technical sense but also in its Freudian meaning, in which repressed thoughts and cravings are “projected” to the outside world. It is indicative that the film’s fictional characters are reduced to typified figures (the credits identify them as Man, Woman, Youth, and Traveling Entertainer) who act like marionettes. Although Schatten was not the first feature film without intertitles, moviegoers struggled to make sense of the story and characters. The film even triggered a debate about the need for titles, in which the director argued that written words (as remnants of an older medium) merely intrude in what the visuals (lighting design, décor, acting, and camera) were supposed to convey. Only films without titles were deemed to be pure film art; words, he claimed, disturb the atmosphere and mystique of mute images that speak another language. Nonetheless, in 1928, explanatory intertitles were added as a concession to the general public."

"Coming on the heels of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), Schatten, which premiered on 16 October 1923, appears as a latecomer to German Expressionism. It is no less radical than its more famous predecessors. It shares with Caligari a plot that hinges on the medium’s inherent illusionism and deception. Less reliant on distorted sets, Schatten compulsively manipulates light and shadow to propel the story and draw attention to the ability of film to bring out hidden desires. Schatten shares with Nosferatu the intermingling of horror with melodrama, as well as a Freudian probing of the unconscious by way of shadows and mirrors, which produced infinite play with doubles. Schatten is also indebted to German Romanticism, where the loss of one’s shadow means a loss of one’s self – a motif that also animated The Student of Prague, the first German art film, from 1913."

"In Schatten, we experience two forerunners of cinema folded into one – the Chinese shadow play from antiquity (revived in the 1920s by the silhouette films of Lotte Reiniger) and the magic lantern shows popular since the 18th century. The shadow player in Schatten is presented as a traveling showman, in the tradition of the fairground entrepreneurs of early cinema. What was most radical (and confusing to the original audiences) is the conceit that the hypnotized spectators would enter the shadow play’s phantasmagorical realm and have their alter egos – their shadows – act out their innermost fantasies. Not unlike the play within the play in Hamlet, the shadow play within the film (i.e., the ultimate shadow play) leads the audience to confront and recognize their repressed wishes and perversions."

"Schatten is based on an idea by set designer and professed occultist Albin Grau, who had produced Nosferatu for Prana-Film a year earlier. Shortly after Prana’s bankruptcy, Grau started Pan-Film, one of the many small production companies competing with Ufa. His wish to make another film with Murnau in the supernatural style of Nosferatu was thwarted, because the director was already under contract to Ufa. Grau then approached Artur Robison (1883-1935), a Chicago-born screenwriter and director whose German family had moved back to Germany in 1895. After briefly practicing medicine, Robison joined the film industry and became known for Nächte des Grauens (Nights of Horror, 1916) with Emil Jannings and Werner Krauss. More importantly for the visual design of Schatten was Albin Grau’s choice of Nosferatu’s cinematographer, Fritz Arno Wagner, who ranks today as one of the most brilliant cameramen of Weimar cinema. In addition, several actors from Nosferatu joined the production: Gustav von Wangenheim as the forlorn young lover and Alexander Granach as the traveling shadow player. The jealous husband is played by the famous stage and film actor Fritz Kortner, who had worked with Max Reinhardt and starred in more than 40 films before 1923. Schatten was the film debut of Ruth Weyher, who would reprise the role of a young wife in G. W. Pabst’s psychoanalytic film Secrets of a Soul (1926)."

"The acting style in Schatten is highly theatrical and owes much to the Expressionist emphasis on overacting over naturalness, following the dictum: “Reality is there, why replicate it on screen?” The film’s calculated manipulation of artificial lighting underscores the willed stylization of the performance. This stress on theatricality highlights the medium as a machine to project the unrestrained inner world outward. Visible but possessing no materiality of their own, shadows depend on light to exist and constitute an uncanny double of the visible world, not unlike the spectral images of film."

"In the tradition of so-called “Aufklärungsfilme” (sex education films) from 1919-20, Schatten invokes a sexually charged atmosphere of aristocratic decadence and depravity, including, in the phantasmagorical scene, bondage, implied gang rape, and murder (represented as shadow play). Looking back, film critic Lotte Eisner, author of The Haunted Screen, called the film one of the most overtly erotic films ever. Not unlike Secrets of a Soul, Schatten is framed as a lesson in overcoming a psychological disorder (impotence in the former, jealousy in the latter). While in Secrets psychoanalysis provides the cure, in Schatten it is the hallucinatory shadow play – a perfect double for the immersive cinematic experience – that leads to a happy ending.
" Anton Kaes

AA: It was a revelation to finally see a print this good from this Weimar classic. I have seen it and we have screened Schatten only in low contrast prints which fail to convey the impact of this purely visual film. This print is from Cineteca Italiana in Milan, but the opening credits state that the sources are La Cinémathèque française and The Museum of Modern Art. There are no intertitles, but the art credits in the beginning are in French.

Arthur Robison kept directing strong silent films until the very end (Looping the Loop, The Informer), and he made solid sound films, too (including the last film adaptation of Der Student von Prag), but in this screening I'm finally convinced that he was at his best in Schatten. (Robison's Der Student von Prag and Frank Wysbar's Fährmann Maria are considered the last achievements relevant to the Weimar cinema's heritage of the fantastique).

Strengths include: a genuine sense of the fantastique, an irresistible dream mode, a talent in mounting a dream stage, a sense of wonder, a sense of the macabre (Alexander Granach as le montreur d'ombres), a powerful yet refined sensuality, an overheated and unrealistic atmosphere.

In a hypnotical fashion the ombromane invites his audience, our surrogates, into a collective nightmare. Projecting at first his ombres chinoises he invites the actual shadows of his viewers to take over the dream stage. The nightmares are not innocent: sexual violence and murder are imminent. Fritz Kortner as The Man breaks a mirror. The action has taken place on a screen of the unconscious. The ombromane conjures the living shadows back to their owners again. We return to the Chinese shadows, but a disturbing feeling lingers and an ultimate sense of mystery remains.

The screening of Schatten did not belong to the Canon Revisited series of the Festival, but for me this viewing confirmed the status of this powerful movie as one of the great Weimar films. The mysterious ombromane deserves a place besides the ominous hypnotists Dr. Caligari and Dr. Mabuse, and perhaps the Devil himself as incarnated as Scapinelli in Der Student von Prag, although in Robison's sound adaptation he is called Dr. Carpis. In Der Student von Prag as in Schatten people are caught in the spell of a magnetic mastermind and must inevitably confront their evil doubles.

The live music performance of Daan van den Hurk and Frank Bockius was enchanting.

Speaking of music I cannot resist a digression to Robison's final film, his adaptation of Der Student von Prag. I do not know how it is elsewhere but in Finland the theme song of that film, "Warum?" by Theo Mackeben, sung by the coloratura Miliza Korjus, became a big hit, still continuously played on the radio. The lyrics are by Goethe, from a private poem of his to Charlotte von Stein, published only after both were dead. It is a poem of unrequited love but it also conveys something of a general sense of mystery so potently understood by Robison in his films.

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