Mon
Jun 1 2009 12:35pm

Ancient Rockets: Schatten

Er.... Okay... it’s a baby carriage about to hit a rock and plunge down a staircase?

Now, this is what I’d call German Expressionism.

Suppose someone gave a dinner party and the invitation specified that you could only come as your id? You know, your dark, primal knot of urges and longings, completely ungoverned by rational thought? The same force that wiped out the Krell in Forbidden Planet? The result might be something like the plot of 1923’s Schatten, aka Warning Shadows. “Bizarre” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Is it a masterpiece? In its way, yes. Is it awful? Yes, but interestingly awful. There are moments of pure genius. There are painfully dated moments. There are screamingly funny moments. Watching it is like getting very high and suddenly finding yourself in the midst of an Aubrey Beardsley drawing come to life. The subtitle is, in fact, A Nocturnal Hallucination.

It shares certain things with D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance in that it relies on symbolic names for its characters: “The Man” and “The Woman” for example, implying that he stands for all men and she for all women. Like Intolerance, it gives us a lengthy peep into its creator’s own unconscious, and we must recoil a little at the things we see there. Is this really how men see women? How Freudian! But we’re getting ahead of our story...

Schatten appears to take place in the early years of the 18th century, but we’re never sure, because there are a few anachronisms scattered about: samurai armor, some 20th-century furniture, Asian silhouette puppets. Maybe it implies that it’s always the Age of Beethoven in the German Expressionist subconscious? But with martial suicidal baggage thrown in there with Schiller and Goethe? Whichever, we first see a stage upon whose curtain a grinning little Shadow-player is throwing shadow pictures. Here are our characters: the Man, the Woman, the Youth, the Three Gentlemen, the Maid, the Two Serving-men, the Shadow-player.

Now! Here’s a dark market square overlooked by a grand house. The little Shadow-player, sort of a German Expressionist version of Mathieu Chedid crossed with Mr. Punch, wanders in and seats himself. He watches a pair of lovers embracing in silhouette on the shade of the big house. So does the sorrowful Youth who approaches. The Youth looks noble and poetic and about the way a young would-be lover would like to imagine himself. We see the lovers inside their big weirdly decorated mansion. The Man is a huge snarling blunt-featured bestial knot of passions, lips writhing, eyes bulging, stormy as Beethoven. He is dressed like Kaspar Hauser. This is how the German Expressionists conceived of the male Id, all right.

The Woman is a beauty, of course, in a Theda Bara sort of way, in a languid-eyelids, heaving-bosom seductress sort of way, and for whatever reason she is dressed as an Ancient Greek hetaera (that’s a high-class hooker, for those of you who are getting tired of Googling all these references). Her leather-bound hair sticks out in a sort of handle at the back, a perfect invitation for cavemen to grab hold of it when dragging her off to their lairs. She is sensuous, vain, jewelry-coveting and faithless, at the first chance shoving the Man into an empty bedroom so she can welcome in the Youth to her dinner party. Here we are, ladies, as the German Expressionists saw us, when they weren’t seeing us as Virgin Mothers. Eeeeewwwwww.

Here are the Three Gentlemen, arriving at the house after the Youth. Most sources on this film describe them as “suitors for the Woman’s hand” but one has one’s doubts. They are foppishly dressed and they titter. They are most often framed next to the fruit bowl on the dining table. They seem to have come to the house merely to watch the fireworks as the Woman trades off between the Man and the Youth, and at one point they engage in mean-spirited play, pretending to kiss and fondle the Woman’s shadow behind her back. Not gentlemen, clearly. 

Of the Servants, the Maid is a little expressionless thing, devoid of personality, wearing silk stockings with seams down the back. Manservant 1 is young, hot-blooded and resentful. Manservant 2 is old, shuffling and downcast. The crazy Shadow-player shoves his way into the house and manages to convince everyone that he can really liven up the dinner party with his amusing silhouettes.

And we’re off into a night of desires barely repressed, desires completely unrepressed, obscure wish-fulfillment, twisted urges, lusts as fiery as the German Board of Censors would permit, outright madness and Freudian symbolism. There are no intertitles anywhere in the film to guide you, and you’ll really wish you could lip-read German before finally going ahead and making up your own dialogue. My favorite moment is when the Man appears to be screaming “Go ahead! Stick your puny little rapiers into my wife! But cower before my MUCH BIGGER CUTLASS!”

No, maybe my favorite moment is at the end, when the dejected Youth, all his dreams of romance cast down, wanders out across the marketplace in a cloud of Young Werther-esque melancholy and some peasant tries to sell him a cabbage. So anticlimactic, you know?

A few notes on the cast: almost the only actor you’re likely to recognize, unless you watch a helluva lot of silent cinema, is the superbly weird-looking Fritz Rasp, in the role of the younger manservant. Rasp was one of Fritz Lang’s regular players and invariably turned in a fine performance. If you have a very good eye for faces you’ll realize that Alexander Granach, the Shadow-player, also did a star turn as the Renfield equivalent character in Nosferatu. IMDB insists that Rudolf Klein-Rogge is in this film playing one of the three, er, gentlemen, but he manifestly isn’t. The mincing men are Eugen Rex, Max Gülstorff and Ferdinand von Alten. 

The only available DVD is a restoration done by Kino, though it’s only a restoration in the sense of combining several existing prints to get something as close to the original film as possible. No digital restoration at all, which is a real shame given Fritz Arno Wagner’s magnificent photography. No extras. No commentary. What were they thinking? I propose you liven up your second or third viewing with a game: take a drink every time a thinly-concealed phallic or yonic symbol appears onscreen. Double points if you can explain the defenestration scene in Jungian terms.

6 comments
Grey Area
1. Grey Area
Just chiming in to mention that I absolutely love the Ancient Rockets columns! Please keep 'em coming Ms. Baker (although I suspect the subject matter will be exhausted before too long).
Fred Himebaugh
2. Fredosphere
Me likey too, and I read this review with special interest because I just finished watching, for the first time ever, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Hoo-boy, those German Expressionists did love to tear their hair out. (OTOH they apparently hated right angles.)

I'm betting, and hoping, this series could go on for a while. Meanwhile, I've got a library copy of Hands of Orlac sitting on my shelf ready to watch, thanks to your previous review. Keep 'em coming, Kage.
Kage Baker
3. kagebaker
Thanks, folks. I keep coming across more silent SF/F/horror films of which I've never heard, so I'll go on writing about them as long as the supply holds out. If you have a favorite obscure silent you'd like reviewed, let me know.
David Lev
4. davidlev
Nosferatu. I just saw it and boy is it weird
Kage Baker
5. kagebaker
Next up is The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but after that-- NOSFERATU!
Fred Himebaugh
6. Fredosphere
Achmed is mesmerizing. You'll love it.

What about the silent treatment of The Call of Cthulhu that was made by the Lovecraft fan club? It's retro-silent rather than truly old, but it's got a strange, strange B&W look (and a decent symphonic score--its budget is not as tiny as it might have been) that fits the Lovecraftian milieu perfectly. You should review that one too.

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