In Shadows and Fog, Woody Allen pays homage to the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s with a Kafka-esque story and a Lang-esque style. The blend of Allen’s absurd comedic style, his frequent obsessions (mortality, infidelity, guilt), and German Expressionism is put to better effect in some of his New Yorker short stories, notably “The Condemned.” However, Shadows and Fog benefits greatly in light of Allen’s work in the intervening 20 years. Its original release—between a string of great films like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Bullets Over Broadway—made it seem like a lesser work. Since then, Allen has made a lot of flat-out bad films. Shadows and Fog holds up better in comparison to his later work, though it’s nowhere near the caliber of his incredible hot streak during the ’70s and ’80s.
The strange story ostensibly focuses on the pursuit of a serial killer known as “the Strangler.” Kleinman (Allen) becomes an unwilling participant in the search when a vigilante mob rouses him from his sleep and suggests that if he doesn’t help, then he must be the killer. Meanwhile, at a circus on the outskirts of New York, sword-swallower Irmy (Mia Farrow) argues with her husband, clown Paul (John Malkovich), about having a baby. Angry, Irmy runs away and winds up taking shelter in a whorehouse where student Jack (John Cusack) mistakes her for an employee.
From there, things get even more bizarre as the enormous cast of characters (including a madam played by Lily Tomlin, prostitutes played by Jodie Foster and Kathy Bates, a tightrope walker played by Madonna, a doctor played by Donald Pleasence, and a magician played by Kenneth Mars) interact in absurd, surprising ways. I don’t want to spoil the developments, so I’ll just say this: imagine Love and Death, You Only Live Once, and Kafka’s The Trial had a freaky three-way. Shadows and Fog would be their lovechild.
Allen is not a director known for creating a creepy atmosphere in his films. Even his most depressing (Interiors) and surreal (Stardust Memories) films, while evocative in their own ways, don’t have the same eerie, oppressive feel of Shadows and Fog. It’s a combination of the heavy fog and Allen’s decision to shoot entirely on soundstages instead of on location, which lends itself perfectly to the surreal, dreamlike nature of the film. This is one of a handful of films to point to in order to convince doubters of Allen’s versatility and directorial daring.
The problem that prevents Shadows and Fog from joining the ranks of Allen’s alarming number of masterpieces is its central conceit: it toes the line between spoofing and paying homage to German Expressionism, and as a result it’s a little too precious and self-consciously odd. Generally a master of absurdity, Allen strains here to combine weirdness with weighty themes, starting with the too-obvious circus motif. Consequently, Allen’s work here pales in comparison to the Kafka material he emulates. That doesn’t make it a bad film. Uneven, maybe. It’s anchored by great performances, and Allen loads his script with enough comedy and thoughtful ideas to make up for the occasionally overwrought symbolism and thematic elements. If nothing else, it’s a lot more watchable and ambitious than Allen’s other magic-themed films (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Scoop).
Overall, Shadows and Fog seems designed mainly for people who know and appreciate German Expressionism. If you’ve never read anything by Kafka or seen anything by Lang or Murnau, this probably won’t do much for you. It’s a good film if you have those reference points, but it doesn’t hold up on its own merits.