Shadows and Fog
1992 Directed by Allen. Starring Allen, Mia Farrow, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Jodie Foster, Kenneth Mars, Kathy Bates, Lily Tomlin, Julie Kavner, Michael Kirby.
REVIEWED By Kathleen Maher, Fri., March 20, 1992
It's easy to be too enthusisatic about a Woody Allen film -- it's the result of peer pressures. The problem is that when one is really great, when it really hits its marks, you sound like Ed from Northern Exposure. Let's take that risk. This time out, Allen very successfully blends his existential musings, European yearnings, American humor and cheerful mysticism in a black-and-white film set somewhere in German expressionism, a little north of Fellini and far south of Bergman. He packs a foggy little cobblestone village with a cast of characters that includes Allen as a timid clerk, Tomlin, Foster and Bates as world-weary whores, Michael Kirby as a homicidal maniac and Malkovich and Farrow as a squabbling clown and sword swallower couple from the nearby circus. The town, just as that in Frankenstein or M, is terrorized by a killer (please note, as an aside, that Kirby plays a very similar role in Ruiz' The Golden Boat), and groups of vigilantes set out to capture him with the aid of a “plan.” They wake Allen and tell him he's got to hurry to get out there and take part, but no one bothers to fill him in on his part. Thus he's left to wander the town wondering about his part in the plan and hoping he doesn't meet the killer. Instead, he meets the sad sword swallower who encourages him to stand up for himself. Other wonderful characters emerge from the fog to tell a story and either abuse or encourage the poor little clerk without a clue. Allen uses the music of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht to locate his film in time, place and philosophy. In this Germanic little town there are the elements of fascism that we know can grow to proportions more monstrous than the lone killer, but just on the outskirts there is a circus, and there's magic. Once again, Allen returns to his theme that art offers more than relief from the horrors of the world; it is the only form of salvation available. But Shadows and Fog is much more than a successful reworking of a theme because this time Allen more comfortably gives himself over to magic and to humor. It's the theme of magic, I think, that's finally allowed him to reconcile his earlier, funnier, anarchic films with the darker themes that so fascinated him later. Oh god, now I really sound like Ed.