Recently, I saw a revival of the German silent film classic, Warning Shadows, a picture made in 1923 when German cinema was doing much to elevate film into the major art form of the twentieth century. The film is also important because it is one of the many made in Germany during the twenties that prefigures the advent of Hitler’s Third Reich.
That German film gave evidence of where German society was headed is a thesis that first received classic expression after World War II in Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler. According to Kracauer, German film, beginning with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), displays a preoccupation with madness, hypnotists, and tyrants that are about to become all too real with the coming of nazism. Unfortunately, these cultural signals were not read carefully enough by observers, including the Christian pastors and theologians who opposed Hitler. These films, it could well be argued, mirrored a psychological state of mind all too ready to be swayed by a Hitler.
Looking at these films today, one can learn a number of striking things (the films are more available now than ever through film revivals and videocassettes). Warning Shadows, for instance, has lost little of its power. The film describes in detail an evening in nineteenth-century Germany in which a jealous husband entertains four male guests, all of whom in one way or another have designs on his flirtatious wife. Each character in the film is consumed by some unhealthy desire. The husband’s jealous nature has become an obsession. The wife, on the other hand, enjoys the attention of the other males, dressing and acting in ways that are clearly sensual. A terrifying evening follows, in which an itinerant hypnotist causes the group to fall into a deep slumber. The film then describes a common dream in which the husband carries out a dreadful revenge on his wife for making love to one of his friends.
With the coming of morning, all awaken, shaken by the full revelation of their repressed desires and impulses. As the four guests leave, the husband and wife attempt a subdued reconciliation. Kracauer sees the ending as a purging of unconscious, destructive urges. However, the purging is not complete. The most disturbing shot of the film is its ending. In the final scene, the hypnotist, whose identity has remained a secret, mounts a gigantic sow and, with mocking laughter, rides off. A worker in the town square witnesses this, and crosses himself in fear. The implication is unmistakable: the hypnotist is Lucifer.
Warning Shadows raises issues that we must still deal with today, issues that are especially significant for the Christian. This film and dozens of others of its same period depict a society, as Siegfried Kracauer has argued, that was on the verge, psychologically, emotionally, and ethically, of accepting an Adolf Hitler. Warning Shadows reveals emotions that have become obsessions, passions beyond control, and characters manipulated and led by a satanic figure. It is striking to note that ten years after its release, Hitler was installed as chancellor of Germany. The question could well be raised: What are the “warning shadows” in film for us today?
No one can analyze the popular culture of the American scene in the past quarter-century without paying serious attention to Roger Corman. A shrewd producer-director who has had his touch clearly on the pulse of U.S. society for the past 25 years, Corman directed (and produced) rock-and-roll films in the fifties, motorcycle and LSD films in the sixties, and blends of sex and violence in the seventies. He directed a long series of films allegedly based on the stories, and even poems, of Edgar Allan Poe, virtually all starring Vincent Price. He directed the film that inspired the off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors. His first major film of the 1980s was Humanoids from the Deep. What is most striking about this Grade Z film is the addition of a cynical black humor amidst the now intensified depictions of sex and bloodshed. Humanoids draws on science fiction monstrosities from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) to Alien (1979). The tone of the film suggests a world of all-pervading chaos.
This same tone can be found all too often in the many films based on the works of Stephen King (The Shining, Cujo, Creepshow, etc.), as well as in The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, The Thing, Twilight Zone, and the ad nauseum (literally) sequels to Halloween and Friday the Thirteenth. Also important on this list is the video version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, directed by Jon Landis (American Werewolf in London). Jackson’s Thriller record features another prominent Corman figure—none less than Vincent Price himself. Price’s little monologue on this record sums up a whole trend. With tongue partially in cheek, he describes a charnel-house vision of unavoidable death and destruction, complete with reference to corpses rotting in their graves. Horror films up through the sixties had drawn on classic works of fiction: Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and so on. Present films draw on the horror comics of the early fifties, which presented Grand Guignolstories of inescapable fate and ghastly revenge, a negligible tradition celebrated in the film Creepshow. Stephen King owes far more to this tradition than he does to Bram Stoker, the nineteenth-century author of Dracula.
What is the Christian to make of all this? If we apply the historical lessons of Warning Shadows to our present time, what do we learn? The predominant message of such films, to say nothing of the phenomenal popularity of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, seems to be one of fixation on death and destruction. If this is indeed the case, there are numerous implications that will have to be faced by the Christian church in the years ahead. We have the negative example of the evangelical church in Hitler’s Germany, which was ill-prepared for the rise of nazism. If our cultural milieu is developing a cynical fascination with death and destruction, we as Bible-believing Christians need to be prepared to respond creatively and compassionately to this. Are we receiving “warning shadows” of a sort?
Further reflection would suggest that this may well be the case. Many people have been concerned about the increase in teenage suicide. The popular cinema of the Roger Corman and Stephen King variety is being borne out elsewhere. Ingmar Bergman’s award-winning Fanny and Alexander evidences much the same kind of cynical, black-humored attitude toward death and destructive forces that we have noted in less-artistic films. The Oscar-winning film of 1983, Terms of Endearment, deals with untimely death as a principal theme. Another note in these films is an indifference, or outright hostility, toward Christianity. One of the most striking fantasy films of the last dozen years is The Wicker Man, from England. This powerful film portrays an island off the coast of Scotland so post-Christian that it has resorted to ancient pagan beliefs, including the practice of human sacrifice, to ensure the success of its crops. In this case, however, the “perfect” sacrifice turns out to be a deeply committed Christian. Warning shadows, indeed.
Dr. Leggett is pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey. He previously served on the faculty of the Latin American Biblical Seminary in Costa Rica, and he has also taught at Gordon-Conwell and Union Theological seminaries.
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