Shadows and Fog

Stages on Woody's Way

by Timothy Holland

Shadows and Fog is the quintessential Woody Allen movie. Though simple in story and structure, it touches on many of Allen's familiar themes: 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. The film also encapsulates the three stages on life's way put forth by Soren Kierkegaard and further explained by Regis Jolivet in Introduction to Kierkegaard.

Jolivet writes that "life's various possibilities can be arranged to form three distinct stages or spheres-the aesthetic stage, the ethical stage, and the religious stage" (113). The aesthetic stage is characterized by the primacy of pleasure. For the aesthetician, Jolivet says, "continual change is necessary to him since only that which has the freshness of immediacy can procure him pleasure ... the fundamental aesthetic proposition is that the moment is everything" (124,125). Despair, boredom, and a longing for death accompany this stage. Allen's first five films, Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, Sleeper and Love and Death, are part of the aesthetic stage.

The ethical stage is characterized by the primacy of duty. "The ethicist, that is, the man who has morality as the chief principle of his conduct and the ultimate end of his activity," Jolivet says, "aims above all at obedience to duty" (134). This stage encompasses the widest margin of Allen's films from Annie Hall through Oedipus Wrecks, 13 movies in all. They are marked by a sense of moral rightness and wrongness, but not by a sense of human sinfulness.

The religious stage has as its criterion "suffering, not of a momentary kind, but as an enduring state," according to Jolivet (119). This stage also acknowledges human sinfulness and a need for God. "In the religious, the external and the visible--the glory or the wretchedness of this world- count for absolutely nothing," Jolivet says, "and if they intervene in any way it is always only to tempt faith, that is to say, in order that the soul may apply itself to regarding them as indifferent and may rid itself of them. The religious result, then, has only an internal reality, that is, faith" (120,121). Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alice, and Shadows and Fog constitute the religious stage of Allen's work.

Shadows and Fog is an expanded version of Allen's one-act play Death, included in his collection Without Feathers published by Random House. The setting is a single night in a small, unidentified European town in the 1920s. A killer is roaming through the fog-filled streets randomly strangling anyone unfortunate enough to come across his path.

Allen plays Max Kleinman, a timid clerk, who is aroused from a night's sleep by a citizen's patrol intent on capturing the killer. Kleinman is forced to join them in their plan to catch the strangler. Unfortunately, the patrol leaves before he can get dressed. Worse still, he has no idea what his part in the plan is. He spends the rest of the night trying to find them while warding off rival vigilante groups before he becomes the killer's next victim.

In a side story, Irmy (Mia Farrow), a sword swallower with a traveling circus, packs her bag and leaves after discovering her boyfriend, the circus clown (John Malkovich), with another woman. Irmy is unaware that a killer is loose. She is befriended by a street prostitute and takes refuge in a brothel. Of course, Kleinman and Irmy eventually meet each other and then run into the strangler.

On the surface, Shadows and Fog is a light comic thriller. But underneath it is one long, dark night of the soul. It is an existential dilemma with a Kafka-like character who doesn't have enough facts to know whom to follow or where he belongs in life. Evil flourishes, the Church can't be trusted, and death is just around the comer waiting to strike. Man is lost, wandering through the shadows and fog of life, diverting himself with illusions in order to survive.

The illusions in Shadows and Fog reveal the three stages of Kierkegaard's way of life: pleasure, duty, and religious need.

The Aesthetic Stage

The aesthetic stage, or the pursuit of pleasure, is personified by the prostitutes in the brothel and by the clown in his pursuit of sensual pleasure with Marie (Madonna), the high-wire artist. The prostitutes live day by day (or night by night) specializing in instant gratification. A continual change in lovers is necessary for them and a change in prostitutes is necessary for their regular customers in order to receive pleasure. Student Jack (John Cusack) is such a customer. He arrives at the brothel for his usual carousing when he meets Irmy who has taken refuge there to escape the deadly streets. She is new. She is fresh. He must have her. He offers her $700 to sleep with him, to which she reluctantly consents. Jack enjoys his new conquest but is as empty afterwards as before. Nothing will satisfy except another new lover. The moment is everything. "But to say that the moment is everything amounts to saying that it is nothing," Jolivet says, "exactly as the sophistical proposition according to which Œeverything is true¹ means that nothing is true and vice versa" (125). Despair and boredom are inevitable. Kierkegaard compares this emphasis on the moment to "a pebble skimming over the waves and suddenly sinking," Jolivet says, "far from being fullness and intensity, which it becomes through the eternal, the moment is merely a superficial and passing thrill for the aesthetician" (126).

The same can be said of the clown seducing Marie. He is tired of Irmy, his girlfriend, and seeks a new relationship free from attachments. A commitment to family would be "death to the artist," the clown says.

The Ethical Stage

Secondly, the ethical stage, or pursuit of duty, is embodied by the Doctor, Irmy, and again, the clown. The Doctor (Donald Pleasence) wants to study the killer's brain so he can learn something about the nature of evil. What drives some people to kill and others to create? It is the Doctor's duty to apply his talents to this discovery. "Talent, in which the aesthetician egotistically sees only superior means to enjoyment and the source of all rights, for the ethicist itself becomes a vocation, a responsi-bility and a duty," Jolivet says (134).

The clown says that artists are not like other people, "Nothing is more terrifying than trying to make people laugh and failing." With talent comes responsibility. Responsibility, or duty, accompanying artistic talent is a common thread in several of Allen's films in this stage. The end of Stardust Memories is perhaps the most telling of any Woody Allen film. The last shot is of Allen walking back into a movie theater (he plays a film director whose latest movie just premiered there), picks up a pair of sunglasses, and stares at the movie screen for a moment before leaving. In that brief instant, it seems Allen is saying, "This is what I do. For better or worse. I make films. I make people laugh." "Allen's marriage of tragic and comic themes in his later films reflects, 'laughter through tears,¹² Douglas Stenberg says. It "is the broadening of comedy towards an acceptance of life's pain with laughter as the means to transcend problems and failures" (109).

From this sense of vocation or duty "it can be understood how social ethics, that is, perfect conformity to the laws governing social behavior, has been able to appear as a constant principle of conduct, and how community life, and especially marriage as a typical case of it in general, has been considered as the most favorable means towards morality," Jolivet says.

Marriage, family, and a sense of community are evident in Hannah And Her Sisters, Radio Days, Broadway Danny Rose, Another Woman, September, Oedipus Wrecks, and Shadows and Fog. A baby represents hope in Hannah, Another Woman, and Shadows and Fog. In the latter, the baby causes the clown to rethink his life and propose to Irmy. Family is seen as more important than art. This was not always so. In Manhattan, when Ike lists the things that make life worth living, he does not mention his son. Allen received a complaint from a woman on this omission, recalls Allen's biographer Eric Lax.

"I used to think, 'I've got big plans for myself. I don't have time for kids,"' Allen said. "Only after being around Mia have I seen that children are so meaningful to people in helping to define their lives. I wouldn't have thought about it by myself. Now it seems that woman made a damning charge. Once you have a child, it is so powerful an experience, it's impossible not to put it first. It eclipses others by far" (181).

The Religious Stage

Shadows and Fog's Everyman is Max Kleinman. Writing about Allen's play Death, Diane Jacobs says, "it's quickly apparent that the maniac is Death and Kleinman's 'assignment' his purpose in life" (99). Three times Max is asked if he believes in God. He visits a Catholic church only to be rejected. He desperately wants to know where he fits in the grand scheme of things, but he never finds out. "I don't have enough facts to choose," he says. "I don't know what the alternatives are." He wanders aimlessly through the night, stalked by death. He finally joins the circus as the magician's assistant. The circus is not much different from normal life. They both create illusions in order to survive.

Compare Max's confusion to the conviction of Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) in Crimes and Misdemeanors. "God is a luxury I can't afford," he says and then decides to have his mistress murdered. Charles Colson writes that "at the point of dissonance between the events of his (Judah's) life and the standards of God, he had to jettison one or the other. So, just as if Nietzsche had written his script, he killed God--not in an act of violent decide, however. He simply behaved as if God did not exist" (96).

But after the murder, Judah suffers doubts. Are God's eyes on him always? Will he be punished? Allen concludes that God is either dead or blind, and it is up to each individual to take God's place and act morally. Allen says the argument of his movie is that "no higher power is going to punish us for our misdeeds if we get away with them. Knowing that, you have to choose a just life or there will be chaos, and so many people don't do that that there is chaos" (362).

Religion in Shadows in Fog retains the characteristics defined by Maurice Yacowar as he examined Allen's Radio Days, "When Allen appears as a voice in Radio Days, the traditional faith and confidence of a guiding divinity are reaffirmed. But it's not the traditional religion. It is a wholly secular religion that finds glory in an airdrill snowfall and community in shared tragedies and dreams" (86).


Shadows and Fog encompasses all of Woody Allen's dominate themes. His conclusion is that although man is lost, he can find happiness in family, work, and morality. As Louis Levy says in Crimes and Misdemeanors, "We are the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, that human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. It is only we with our capacity to love that gives meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations will understand more."