SCHATTEN - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

Germany, 1923

Director: Arthur Robison

Production: Pan-Film for Dafu Film Verlieh; black and white, 35 mm, silent; running time: 62 minutes currently, but original version was longer. Released 1923.


Screenplay: Arthur Robison and Rudolf Schneider, from an idea by Albin Grau; photography: Fritz Arno Wagner; editor: Arthur Robison; production designer: Albin Grau; original accompanying score: Ernst Riege; costume designer: Albin Grau.

Cast: Fritz Kortner ( Husband ); Alexander Granach ( Mesmerist ); Ruth Weyher ( Wife ); Gustav von Wangenheim ( Lover ); Max Gülstorff, Eugen Rex and Ferdinand von Alten ( Cavaliers ); Fritz Rasp ( Manservant ); Lilli Herder ( Maid ); Karl Platen.



Rotha, Paul, The Film Till Now , London, 1930.

Kracauer, Siegfried, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film , Princeton, 1947.

Eisner, Lotte, The Haunted Screen , Berkeley, 1969.

Fritz Kortner , Berlin, 1970.

Brand, Matthias, Fritz Kortner in der Weimarer Republik: Annäherungsversuche an die Entwicklung eines jüdischen Schauspielers in Deutschland , Rheinfelden, 1981.


Bioscope (London), 20 November 1924.

Potamkin, Harry, "The Rise and Fall of the German Cinema," in Cinema (New York), April 1930.

Wagner, Fritz Arno, in Film Art , no. 8, 1936.

Rayns, Tony, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), June 1975.

Close Up (London), October 1975.

Bertetto, Paolo, " Schatten : l'illusione del vedere," in Cinema Nuovo (Bari), vol. 37, no. 316, November-December 1988.

Cappabianca, A, "Il corpo dell'ombra," in Filmcritica (Siena), vol. 47, no. 475, May 1997.

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Schatten combines with great power and unity of purpose the talents of painter Albin Grau, the film's originator who also designed the sets and costumes, the cameraman Fritz Arno Wagner, and the director-scriptwriter Arthur Robison. The action of the film is compressed to one evening and, apart from an introductory title and an explanation in the middle, the story is told in entirely visual terms. The plot concerns a flirtatious wife, a jealous husband, an indiscreet lover, three philanderers and a sinister servant. Tragedy is impending; a travelling shadow theater showman hypnotizes the characters and lets them see the directions in which their follies will take them. The lesson is learned. The wife and husband are reconciled and the lover departs at dawn. The intensity of the action and the simplification of the characters is representative of Expressionism, as is the chiaroscuro lighting which heightens the mood. An air of unreality is deliberately sought and mirror reflections take us further from the concrete action. This makes it quite easy to accept the marvellous scene of the dinner table viewed slightly from above and from the side, when the shadows of the characters stretch away from them and the magic of the unreal begins.

The beautiful period settings and costumes carry a romantic air, consistent with the film's style and action. The performances of the actors are controlled, and the powerful and dynamic Fritz Kortner dominates the film, creating a tension which never falters. Alexander Granach gives an impish performance as the Mesmerist. Though his contribution to the German Cinema was considerable, he will best be remembered as the disgruntled Commissar Kowalsky in the Garbo-Lubitsch, Ninotchka .

A unity of space is preserved allowing the transactions from the dining room to hall and the corridors outside the bedroom to be effectively managed. Details impinge on our consciousness—the ropes that will bind the wife, the candelabra held by the husband, the swords that will be forced into the cavaliers' hands, all take on a new meaning and significance.

Expressionism was the simultaneous simplification and heightening of mood, atmosphere, and "feeling" to suggest the essence of an action or thought-process. As such it was a highly subjective style— both exaggerated and neurotic. Expressionism came at the time of national tension in Germany and found its exponents in the theater as well as in literature and painting. Many of the actors from the stage were trained in Expressionist theater, and that influence is very evident in Schatten .

The fact that this film was made for ordinary cinema distribution indicates how rich popular film culture was at the time. Films such as Schatten , today viewed as rare classics in cine-clubs and specialized cinemas, were in their day part and parcel of ordinary film-going entertainment.

Perfect films like this were not without their influence. Much of the innovative camera work and visual style has been absorbed into the accepted techniques of the cinema. But there is a special patina which the pioneer film has that can never be transmitted and that is the excitement generated by an original and creative spirit; Schatten is unique in the history of film, and unlike anything its creator, Arthur Robison, ever attempted again.

—Liam O'Leary

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