Some silent movies have aged remarkably well. "Warning Shadows: A Nocturnal Hallucination" is not one of them.
Often heralded as a major work of German Expressionism, this film is hobbled from the start by its insidious tinting. Indoor scenes are shaded a sickly yellow. Outdoor scenes (as well as an extended fantasy sequence) are pale magenta. It's like watching a gastrointestinal disorder. Another obstacle is the total absence of intertitles. A daring choice, certainly, but perhaps unwise when applied to a personality-driven tale which dwells on people simply leering at each other across rooms.
"Warning Shadows" has a small cast, and none of the characters are given names. The leads are a count (Fritz Kortner, grossly overacting) and his wife (Ruth Weyher), who live in an elegant mansion somewhere. He is a sullen, coarse-looking man whose eyes eternally bulge with anger or surprise. She is a pretty maiden traipsing about in diaphanous gowns. He resents her free-spirit flirtations, but she seems oblivious to the tension she causes.
The pair's dinner guests include a handsome youth and three older gentlemen. But another visitor crashes the party: an eccentric, traveling entertainer with a mysterious bag of props. He is a master of shadows, and wins over the house with his ability to create silhouette illusions with his hands (if no special effects were involved, his simulations of animals and people in profile are remarkable). He also mischievously uses a candelabra to backlight the countess's dancing legs through her dress -- an move which the male guests greatly appreciate.
Once this wild-haired imp assembles his audience at a table, he uses intricate cut-outs and a well-placed candle to stage a shadow play about a Far East love triangle. Scholars are quick to note that this sequence precedes the landmark animation of "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" by three years.
From there, his show blossoms into pure magic. As he waves his hands to cast a spell, a panning light source reverses the shadows of the seated viewers and, via a dissolving double exposure, they re-materialize on the other side of the table. Now they are the play rather than the audience.
This begins a hallucinatory melodrama which lasts over a half hour of screen time. The magician teaches a grim lesson about the calamities which could befall the couple if her teasing and his jealousy persist. Once the illusion reaches its shocking conclusion, the entranced guests are returned to reality. They are relieved to see it was all a dream, and then watch as the earlier, cut-out play is resumed and brought to a happy end. Their unlikely mentor grabs a nice tip from the count and leaves -- zanily riding away on the back of a stolen pig.
"Warning Shadows" sounds fun in summary, but the staggered acting, leaden pace and creaky production values make it painful to sit through. The same story could have been told in half the time. A surreal, triple-imaged daydream occurring around the 10-minute mark is a poetic highlight but, otherwise, the film is not much more than an exercise in severe lighting. The actors' oversized shadows arguably require more attention than the actors themselves, and virtually every plot element is driven by some sort of aggressive lighting effect. Even the opening credits -- which lumber on for over five minutes -- are an indulgent showcase of arty silhouettes. A few isolated images will linger in memory, but most of this film is an archaic drag.