Allen's 'Shadows and Fog' never goes anywhere

March 20, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Generally speaking, I do not think highly of book burning, but there's a time and place for everything. Someone ought to break into Woody Allen's West Side co-op and pull out all his treasured volumes of Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Sartre and Schulz, take them out on Amsterdam Avenue and set them alight: it would be a true bonfire of the vanities.

It's too late to do "Shadows and Fog" any good, alas. It was ruined at the instant of conceptualization: a "pastiche" of existential ideas as beamed through a prism of German impressionist film stylings and set to quasi-life with a bunch of show-biz celebs, occasionally amusing but even at 86 minutes, a very long trip to nowhere.

Thematically and in execution, it bears a resemblance to Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," which was much funnier, and Steven Soderbergh's "Kafka," which is much more interesting (and unfortunately appears fated to pass into oblivion without a stopover in Baltimore): a black and white production that plays giddily with the look of German impressionism as it occurred in such movies as "M" and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," re-creating a maze-like warren of a city, with vapors swirling mysteriously off the damp cobblestones and footsteps echoing resonantly off the gabled roofs.

The film is one of those "magic night" numbers. In a nameless European city somewhere in the '20s, a strangler is about, stomping down the alleyways and glorying in his identity as the force of death. He likes his job almost as much as a movie critic likes his. The townspeople respond by setting up vigilante committees, which soon factionalize and become bitter opponents; the police are idiots, the whores all discuss philosophy; as a further complication, the circus is in town, and the clown's wife leaves him and begins to wander the streets where she ultimately meets a number of victims and survivors while being chased by her husband.

And, of course, through all of this there wanders a single solitary figure who is us all: Everyman, schlemiel, mensch, one of life's little yo-yos, ladies and gentlemen, heeeere's Woody. Allen's Kleinman is typical of the old Woody, an adenoidally whining coward who nevertheless represents our kindest, gentlest, most humane instincts.

The "celebs" don't help much: we're always bounced out of the film by the shock of seeing a big face in a small role (Madonna as a trampy circus aerialist; Lily Tomlin as a worn-looking prostitute). And the movie just never amounts to much.

For a time, it seems to be taking a page from Herr Doktor Freud's famous essay "Civilization and Its Discontents," as the presence of the strangler generates every known form of folly and perfidy among the townies, most of it aimed at the outsider, Kleinman. But abruptly, Allen abandons this idea, and begins toying with something he borrowed from Bergman, the notion of the artist as magician with the deft gift to conjure up our deepest fears and make them vanish with the same elan. But this has little to do with what came before, and nothing comes after.

"Shadows and Fog" has a few moments, but like the fog of its title, when you reach out to embrace it, there's nothing there.

'Shadows and Fog'

Starring Woody Allen.

Directed by Woody Allen.

Released by Orion.

PG-13 rated.

**

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