Shadows and Fog (Woody Allen, 1992).
Tonight I watched Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German (2006), a self-conscious pastiche of wartime Hollywood melodrama, particularly Casablanca, and noirish postwar moral quandaries like The Third Man. I have a soft spot for this sort of thing. It put me in the mood to revisit my thoughts on Woody Allen’s twentieth full-length feature film, Shadows and Fog.
Allen’s work is regularly derivative of European cinema, appropriating plots and imagery from the classic movies of (usually) Fellini or Bergman. But only very occasionally does Allen indulge in an all-out genre pastiche. These films are rarely well-received. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) retreads not only Shakespeare but also Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night. Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) is a noirish private eye spoof in the Bob Hope vein with a bit of orientalist hypnotism. In Shadows and Fog, based on Allen’s one-act stage play Death (included in his 1975 collection Without Feathers), Allen works with the German Expressionism of Pabst and Murnau with dashes of Kafka, Weill and Brecht, and Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel. We are in a stylised early-twentieth century middle European town, probably Weimar Germany, although there is no attempt to recreate an exact place or time. The characters speak English and the currency is dollars.
A crazed killer is on the loose and the enraged citizens of the town are taking the law into their own hands. Kleinman (Allen), a small and timid Jewish ‘little man’, is woken in the middle of the night by the vigilantes and told he is part of a ‘plan’. Like a Joseph K., Kleinman can never discover what this plan actually involves. He is thrust into the dark, claustrophobic, confusing streets, the fog wafting in on a chill wind. “They say the killer has the strength of ten men,” whines Kleinman. “While I have the strength of a small boy. With polio.”
Camped on the outskirts of the town is a circus. Sword-swallower Irmy (Mia Farrow) and the clown Paul (John Malkovich) are having relationship problems. This is a Woody Allen picture, so Paul must pontificate about the morality of the artist, et cetera. Shocked by the discovery of one of Paul’s infidelities, Irmy runs off into the fog, hiding out in a brothel, and later accompanying Kleinman as he evades the vigilantes, who are now after him.
Heavy themes are worn heavily. Timothy Holland in Sync magazine draws attention to the focus on “the absence of God, the alienation of man, and the search for meaning – through art, science, philosophy, religion, sex, love and family – in a seemingly godless universe”. Several times throughout the evening, Kleinman is asked whether he believes in God. “I would love to, believe me, I know I’d be much happier,” he says, but “I can’t even make the leap of faith necessary to believe in my own existence”. The movie is a pretty blunt Allenesque metaphor for humans lost, unable to find purpose and meaning in life, yet horrified by their own mortality.
Despite the killer’s escape from justice, the film ends with some optimism. Kleinman finds the courage to leave his subservient job and join the circus as a magician. Magic and magicians appear often in Allen’s work, notably in Stardust Memories (1980), Oedipus Wrecks (1989), Scoop (2006) and the 1980 play The Floating Lightbulb. But despite its promise of adventure and freedom, the film acknowledges such a life as just another distraction from those heavy existential dilemmas. Distractions fill our lives with the illusion of purpose, and that is a necessity of survival. Allen has since cited this belief as the basis for his career as a writer (“busy fingers are happy fingers”). Says one circus character, who specialises in creating illusions, people “need [illusions], like they need the air”.
The cast is populated with famous names, and several give excellent performances: Donald Pleasance is hilarious as a morbid doctor who wants to dissect the killer’s brain, “to find out something definitive about the nature of evil.” Kleinman counters, “Is it not possible that under the microscope there’s something you can never see?”. The Doctor is skeptical. “What are you implying? A soul that lives on after we’re dead? A God?” Pointing at a dismembered corpse, he moans, “Ask him if there’s anything else.”
Woody Allen gives an above-average comic performance as the meek and ingratiating Kleinman. For once he has ditched the trademark black-rimmed glasses in favour of thin wire frames. John Cusack plays a student who seeks fulfillment in brothel sex, and who is bewitched by Mia Farrow. He returned to work with Allen in Bullets over Broadway (1994). Julie Kavner is very funny as Kleinman’s resentful ex-fiancé (whom he placates with “look, we just had your best interests at heart…your sister was a wonderful girl, she worshipped you like a goddess, she was singing your praises, I promise you, till the moment I slipped her pants off.”). Other cameos, such as those by Madonna, Jodie Foster, William H. Macy, and Fred Gwynne, are so fleeting they are merely distracting.
Santo Loquasto designed the massive set at Kaufman-Astoria Studios, New York. If for no other reason, see this film for the set and Carlo Di Palma’s Expressionist black and white photography that wittily draws attention to the movie’s own artificiality:
[Click for larger images]
Kurt Weill’s ‘Cannon Song’ from The Threepenny Opera is used most effectively as the title music: jaunty, kinky, dangerous.
It is strange that so few critics remark on Allen’s stylistic diversity from project to project. His next film was the drama Husbands and Wives (1992), shot with handheld cameras and natural light, and edited with jump-cuts.
Shadows and Fog is a searching and entertaining piece, one of my favourites among Allen’s close to forty films. The movie was not well-received by critics and almost immediately forgotten. It’s ripe for reappraisal.
Below is a ten minute clip featuring highlights:
[Original review: 7 December 2001; revised: 18 November 2007. The DVD stills are from DVD Beaver.]