“Shadows and Fog” (1991) Review

Shadows and Fog (1991)

Dir. Woody Allen; Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, John Malkovich
[2 out of 4 stars]

As Max Kleinman wakes one night (from uneasy dreams?), he finds himself thrust into an incomprehensible plan. Without having done anything wrong, the stuttering, hand-wringing Kleinman (played by Woody Allen, who also directs) is woken by hammering on his bedroom door. He is met by a group of vigilantes, who, with no explanation, immediately involve him in their plan to find a mysterious nighttime killer. And so the timid Kleinman descends into the night with only the vaguest sense of his duty, and begins wandering around the dark, empty streets in search of the vigilantes, in order to find some explanation of his role in the “plan.” Kleinman’s uncertainty quickly becomes the viewer’s confusion, not only because no one will actually tell Kleinman what he is supposed to do, but also because the plot of Shadows and Fog (1991) suffers from incontinuity, unconvincing character development, and a complete lack of emotional substance.

Set somewhere in central Europe, possibly Berlin, or more likely Prague, Woody Allen spins a dark story in every sense of the word. This is a world of conveniently-placed tunnels and overpasses, street lights spaced just a little too far from another to be effective against the night. Characters emerge and disappear from darkness like buoys bobbing in a river. A murderer prowls the streets at night, strangling mostly female victims. Kleinman wanders around, jumping at every noise. He is continually uncertain of his role, searching in dark alleyways for the vigilantes and trying to avoid the mysterious killer. Eventually, his story interweaves with that of Irmy (Mia Farrow), a sword-swallower from the travelling circus, who leaves her clown boyfriend (John Malkovich), after finding him in the throes of passion with a tightrope walker (Madonna). Kleinman runs into Irmy in the fog, and the two creep through the night together. He encounters officials, students, and prostitutes; a clairvoyant, a series of women inexplicably attracted to Kleinman, and a sex-crazed university student round out the bunch. Over the course of the film, Kleinman metamorphoses from clueless clerk to suspected murderer. Any meaning that can be gained from the film is eventually destroyed by the film’s corny ending, which pairs an extended slapstick scene with Kleinman’s sudden decision to become a magician’s assistant, despite having only ever once mentioned an interest in magic before.

The film’s humor would be quite enjoyable if it weren’t covered by a fog of unseeable acting. For such a star-studded cast, the film lacks even the slightest trace of emotional or psychological depth. “Shadows and fog” could be a description of nearly every camera angle, and the characters repeat these two words over and over, as if afraid that the viewer might forget the name of the film. Take, for example, the first encounter between Irmy and the middle-aged, seen-it-all prostitute played by Lily Tomlin: “I didn’t see you standing there in the shadows, it’s such a foggy night.” Similar phrases appear in nearly every scene. The dialogue thus leaves nothing to the imagination, and any possible interpretative effort is immediately expressed by Allen’s chorus of buffoonish vigilantes or the crass, joke-cracking prostitutes.

Allen plays Kleinman as he does every role: he is the jittery but witty intellectual, always in the wrong place at the wrong time, stuttering out his self-deprecating one-liners. One of the vigilantes tries to get a rise out of him: “You’re not really a coward or a worm or a yellow-belly?” Kleinman responds: “No, but keep going. You’re in the right column.” But the bad acting does not stop with Allen. Malkovich turns in one of the least convincing bits of acting I have ever seen. Every line is delivered in a voice that is somehow both monotone and whiney at the same time. When Irmy brings up the idea of having a child together, Malkovich responds, “A family? That’s death to the artist,” as if the words caused him physical discomfort, pronouncing each syllable like it might be his last. He also repeats these exact words again a few minutes later, which is symptomatic of the overall quality of screenwriting. Mia Farrow fares only a little better, and even Lily Tomlin comes across at though she were reading her lines for the first time.

The most interesting part of Shadows and Fog, and its one redeeming quality, is Allen’s repurposing of those early twentieth-century German elements into the post-Holocaust world. His characters discuss the pre-war murders, but they do so in the language of Nazi Germany.  When one vigilante brings up certain “social undesirables” as possible causes of this violence, another objects to a certain name, saying that he performs “quality circumcisions.” Another refers to a common anti-Semitic trope, referring to a “well poisoning incident.” Others discuss the “extermination” of “cringing, slimy vermin.” These are all clear references to the horrifying scientific discourse of the Nazis, –– (for a good resource on how the usage and implementation of this discourse, check out the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Resource Center) –– and Allen’s use of it in this setting is actually quite clever at times. But while this combination of Kafka’s plot and Lang’s aesthetics (both of whom were Jewish themselves) is promising, it is ultimately undermined by the sheer corniness of Allen’s script. The doctor (Donald Pleasence), who plays the role of a maniacal Nazi doctor, muses about the “nature of evil” in such a melodramatic way that it evokes Young Frankenstein (1974) rather than the actual horrors of Nazi racial science. The references are also so obvious – the actors seem to actually pause after every reference in order to give the audience time to recall high school history lessons – that the emotional effect is all but jettisoned entirely. Allen’s use and reclaiming of this language, which should be credited for its originality, could have been much more effectively transmitted had he introduced it in a more subtle fashion.

Like many of Allen’s works, Shadows and Fog is a clever film, but not a good one. It takes up a single brilliant idea – that is, transporting the tropes of Kafka’s fiction and aesthetics of German Expressionism into a modern setting – and ultimately fails to recreate that atmosphere. Allen attempts to condense Kafka and the Expressionists into a single aesthetic. He steals openly from his predecessors. The night-time strangler prowls around in the world of Fritz Lang’s M (1931). He keeps to the shadows; his murders take place halfway behind pillars or just covered by the night fog. The circus elements come from Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). But whereas the Expressionists used shadows and uncannily low camera angles to create the atmosphere of a nightmare, Allen’s cinematography is more film noir and comes across less nightmarish than merely melodramatic.

Allen also borrows generously for his plot. Kleinman’s rude awakening, interactions with authority, and general cluelessness mimic The Trial (1925). Kleinman’s name, which suggests “little man” in German (as well as K. from Kafka’s novels), is a reference to his societal standpoint. He is the unimportant petit bourgeois clerk, trampled upon by his superiors to the point that he calls his boss “your grace” and “your majesty.” But unlike Kafka’s K., who still maintains some agency even in the face of authority, Allen’s reimagining frames Kleinman as merely foolish and incompetent. Likewise, Allen’s ending replaces K.’s tragic feeling of the impossibility of hope, which puts the rest of the novel into perspective, with a slapstick circus routine, in which the murderer is outwitted by circus tricks. Shadows and Fog suffers due to this attempt to merge these two elements. Allen’s characteristic comedy clashes with the borrowed aesthetics and plot, creating a melodramatic, substance-lacking film with shoddy screenwriting and equally disappointing acting.

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