Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Two Early German Expressionist Classics Restored

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday September 22, 2006

Film was the dominant art form of the 1920s, an international cultural phenomenon which, in the days before sound, was considered a universal language.  

No one seemed to have more fun with the form and its potential than the Germans, who exploited every camera angle, every trick of light, every effect—technical, psychological and otherwise—that the medium had to offer. 

Two rare German silents have been released by Kino that illustrate the point beautifully. Asphalt and Warning Shadows, masterpieces of Expressionism, take vastly different approaches to the form while reveling in its indulgences. 

If, as Godard said, the history of cinema is men photographing women, these two films fit the mold. Both feature luminous beauties in the lead roles, with the men around them driven nearly to ruin by desire and lust.  

Asphalt starts with a cinematic bang, with a rush of images merging and hurdling by in a stunning montage of the throbbing city, the hustle and bustle, the energy and the vice. Then, about 20 minutes in, it takes a step toward melodrama, but beautifully constructed and artful melodrama, with every furtive glance, every emotion, every moment drawn out for maximum effect. The plot is remarkably simple, and could be explained in 10 seconds. But it is not the story that matters so much as the manner in which it is conveyed. Director Joe May constructs the film like a master musician playing just a few notes but playing them with such virtuosity that a few notes are all that are needed.  


Warning Shadows is slightly less accessible but no less remarkable in its achievement. It is a purely visual film, with no intertitles to convey plot or dialogue—beyond the opening credits, that is, which feature each actor appearing on a proscenium, each introduced along with his shadow, for shadows prove to be characters as much as the people who cast them.  

The story concerns a woman and her husband. They are hosting a dinner party of her suitors. A traveling entertainer crashes the party and proceeds to put on a show of shadow puppetry, a show that plumbs the depths of each character’s consciousness. The shadows take on the semblance of reality, acting out a passion play that, in the best Expressionist fashion, gives shape to the tensions and desires in the minds of the party’s hosts and their guests. The husband, overcome with jealous rage, seeks revenge on his flirtatious wife and her ardent suitors, while her beauty and careless allure lead the men to destroy first her and then each other.  

The film was photographed by Fritz Arno Wagner, the famed cinematographer who also shot F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Fritz Lang’s M. 

Expressionism can be an acquired taste, but it holds many of the same pleasures as American film noir: the overwrought emotion, the heightened reality, the dark shadows and shady characters. And these two films play up those qualities, creating strange, twisted, fever-pitched realities. It is an art that celebrates its own artifice.