In the kingdom of shadows: the semiotics of cinema

By Piotr Sadowski

When we are watching a film everything we see consists technically of shadows—insubstantial, fleeting photographic representations of life projected as light effects on a flat rectangular surface of the screen.  Cast shadows are simply the essence of cinema.  After attending the screening of the Lumière brothers’ films at a Russian fair in July 1896, the writer Maxim Gorky could sum up the nature of the new medium in one sentence: “Last night I was in the kingdom of shadows.”[1]  The Russian writer was right: when the light in the projector hits the unexposed, dark parts of the frame in the film strip it is obstructed in proportion to the opacity of the unexposed areas, producing correspondingly dark light effects, or shadows, on the screen.  (The digital revolution has replaced the celluloid strip with a light-sensitive electronic chip, but the principle remains the same.)  From an optical point of view therefore the experience of cinema is indeed the experience of shadows, and in a double sense: first in the form of the translucent photographic images captured on celluloid or recorded on an electronic chip, and second in the form of “shadows within shadows,” when the natural shadows of objects from the outside world are caught by the camera.

The prototypes of screen shadows are indeed the shadows we experience in our daily lives.  On a sunny day with a clear sky we are accompanied all the time by our dark equivalent, especially visible when projected on a bright surface such as a wall or pavement.  Our shadow is real but at the same time strangely elusive: we cannot touch or feel it, it may be on the ground in front of us but we cannot jump over it or shake it off, and if it is behind us we cannot run away from it.  Our shadow imitates or mocks our appearance and movements, at the same time remaining curiously transparent and immaterial, unlike our solid bodies.  As the psychologist of art Rudolf Arnheim also reminds us, a cast shadow may no longer be perceived as a casual superimposition on a light surface but as an independent dark shape and an actual part of that surface.[2]   In other words, the shadow can sometimes be perceived as having a substance and life of its own, independent of its owner.

Despite its ethereality the shadow testifies unmistakably to the solidity of an object, for what casts a shadow must be real.  The physical connection between an object and its shadow explains folk beliefs in the properties shared between the two, as in the legend of the healing power of the shadow cast by Saint Peter, illustrated for example in the fresco by Masaccio (1425) from the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. The healing power of St. Peter’s shadow. Painting by Masaccio (1425).

At the same time the contrast between a solid object and its insubstantial shadow is too compelling not to stimulate the imagination.  A person’s shadow will accordingly be considered as a second, filmy self, a “dark” alter ego, a Doppelgänger.  For example, a shadow of the sinister Dr. Caligari on a promotional still for Robert Wiene’s famous film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from 1920 is revealing in this psychological sense.  In the photograph Caligari is holding a book with his right hand, while his left hand clenched into a fist is turned towards his chest (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. The shadow of Dr. Caligari on a promotional still for
Robert Wiene’s film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

Robert Wiene’s film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

The book refers to the treatise on somnambulism which Caligari used to study as the director of the mental asylum, and in the photograph the doctor stands facing the viewer, as if lecturing passionately on his favorite subject.  What dominates the picture, however, is the gigantic projection of Caligari’s shadow on the white wall to the right.  Larger than the person, the shadow both externalizes and expands Caligari’s inner character, his evil intentions and megalomania.[3]  While Caligari’s stance, with his arms as if protecting his chests, appears harmless and benign, his enormous shadow with its unclenched fist and shriveled fingers reveals the doctor’s hidden sinister self.  As in folk beliefs in which a person’s true character is betrayed by his shadow, in the promotion still for Robert Wiene’s film the distorted, menacing shadow reveals a Mr. Hyde behind the benevolent looking Dr. Jekyll, here a respectable director of the mental asylum.

Why should a common, perfectly natural optical side effect stimulate the imagination to such an extent?  The shadow is a function of light, and responsiveness to light helps most living creatures, us included, to get around in the world, to find food and mates, and to avoid danger; in a word, to survive.  Shadows as side effects of light falling on opaque objects play a role in our visual negotiation of the physical environment, for example by providing us with cues of depth: cast shadows indicate the direction of light falling on objects, as well as the fact that something is obstructing the light.  Texture of objects is also revealed by small shadows, and both the texture of the surface and the direction of illumination are indicated by the form and direction of shadows.  This is particularly important in drawing and painting, in which shading, or modeling, can create on a two-dimensional surface a compelling illusion of volume and space, producing something surprisingly close to binocular vision.[4]  In studio photography and film the effect of shading is achieved by the classic three-point lighting system adopted in Hollywood around 1920, in which the key light from one side of the camera produces the strongest shadow, mitigated by the less intense fill-light coming from the other side of the camera, while the figure’s silhouette is highlighted by the back light coming from behind and above the figure (Fig. 3).[5]

Fig. 3. The head of the actor Emil Jannings sculpted by three-point lighting in Varieté,
dir. E. A. Dupont (1925).

When shadows directly overlie the objects by whose shape, spatial orientation, and distance from the light source they are created, we are talking about attached shadows, or self-shadows.  Attached shadows in photography are usually formed by single-source side or back lighting which fails to illuminate parts of an object on the opposite side of the light source, with no fill-light to mitigate the sharp chiaroscuro effect.  A self-shadow shows a figure as a dark silhouette, without texture or surface detail, a living shadow that can be menacing, mysterious and suggestive.  Gregg Toland’s cinematography in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) provides classic examples.  In the film a frequent use of self-shadows conveys a range of (usually negative) psychological effects: self-effacement, ignorance, insignificance, self-delusion, or powerlessness, depending on the dramatic content of the scene.  For example, when Kane (Orson Welles) reads his “Declaration of Principles” to his associates in the newspaper office his face remains in the dark compared with the other, dramatically less important characters (Fig. 4).  Here the attached shadow betrays Kane’s self-delusion and possibly insincerity in announcing his idealistic principles which he will later betray.

Fig. 4. A self-shadow in Citizen Kane, dir. Orson Welles (1941).

However, most fascinating as visual signs are the cast shadows, visually probably the most prominent because largely separated from their owners as stylistic and dramatic elements in their own right.  As independent visual motifs in pictorial arts cast shadows naturally possess more symbolic significance than they normally do in real life, if only because real-life shadows exist simply as automatic by-products of light, whereas their representations in painting, studio photography and film are always intentional and motivated.  Natural shadows also look insubstantial compared with the solid objects that cast them, while an artistically represented shadow has the same physical quality as the object—both are insubstantial and therefore potentially equivalent as pictorial motifs.

Cast shadows inform us about the solid objects that produce them, even if we do not see the objects themselves, as when the presence of a person hiding behind the corner of a house is betrayed by their shadow cast on the pavement.  In this way shadows testify to the existence of spatially displaced objects, just as footprints or photographs testify to the existence of objects that are displaced both in space and time.  A sign physically caused by an object and referring to that object, now spatially and/or temporally removed, is what semiotics describes as index.[6]  Some indexical signs are more removed from their referents than others.  A fossilized footprint is an index of an animal whose species has been extinct for millions of years, while an old photograph shows an image of a person who died decades ago.  One of the most poignant indexes on record is a human “shadow” etched in stone, whose photograph is displayed in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. The “shadow” of a victim of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb.

The photograph shows a dark spot on the bright steps of the Sumitomo Bank, about 260 meters from the hypocenter over which the atomic bomb went off on August 6th, 1945.  The “shadow” is what has remained of a person who sat on the steps that fateful day waiting for the bank to open.  The victim was exposed to the flash from the atomic explosion and must have vaporized on the spot.  The surface of the surrounding stone steps was turned whitish by the intense heat rays, while the dark patch, a “shadow,” corresponds with the outline of the victim’s body which reduced the heat’s exposure in that spot, making it darker.

The important thing about the way we register and interpret indexical signs such as footprints or shadows is that we are making inferences about objects implied by their indexes, especially when we do not perceive the objects themselves.  We infer someone’s presence in the dark by their voice; we smell a person’s odor and realize that the person is near us even with our eyes closed; and we are making a reasonable deduction that a cracking sound of a broken twig in the forest may be a sign of an approaching large animal or human.  An interesting thing about indexical signs is that they tend to stimulate the imagination more when they appear on their own than when they are accompanied by their referents.  In the latter case what we see is what we get, so there is little else left to the imagination.  The uniformly lit religious paintings of the Renaissance, like the high-key lighting of Hollywood musicals and comedies, provide us with full visual information of the scene to contemplate and interpret.  On the other hand the chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio painting or Rembrandt’s tenebroso (“darkness”) hide more than they reveal, provoking the viewer to infer the invisible but implied elements of the scene from suggestive patches of darkness (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Chiaroscuro lighting in Caravaggio’s painting The Taking of Christ (1602).

A figure casting a shadow, whether in painting or in life, forms a perceptual whole in which the indexical shadow is for the most part ignored, our attention being concentrated on the figure as the main subject.  This is probably why cast shadows are relatively rare in painting, just as in photography or film they are often only accidental and dramatically irrelevant; in other words, non-semiotic.  But if we are not missing a shadow of a painted or photographed figure, we are certainly missing a figure if all we see is the shadow.  The eeriness of the Surrealist painting Melancholy and mystery of a street (1914) by Giorgio de Chirico is in no small measure due to a threatening human shadow emerging from behind a building, opposite a dark silhouette of a girl rolling the hoop and obliviously heading towards possible danger (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7. Melancholy and mystery of a street, painting by Giorgio de Chirico (1914).

Similarly at the beginning of Fritz Lang’s cinematic crime thriller M (1931) little Elsie Beckmann innocently bounces a ball against a police poster that bears an inscription “Wer ist der Mörder?” (Who is the murderer?), across which a shadow of a man wearing a hat moves ominously, the outline of his head projected accusingly on the word “Mörder” (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. The shadow of a child murderer in Fritz Lang’s film M (1931).

The man’s voice (Peter Lorre’s) forms an additional auditory index of a suspected child murderer, his identity still unknown (in the children’s song that opens the film the murderer is simply referred to as “the man in black,” that is, an elusive shadow).

The effectiveness of shadow images from de Chirico’s painting and Lang’s film is based on our unconscious fears provoked by indexical signs.  An index implies a missing original and ultimately it is the original that matters, because it can be a person whose intentions towards us we are not sure of, or an animal out to attack us.  For evolutionary reasons therefore our senses are instantly alerted by detached shadows whose mystery is precisely about the yet unknown and potentially dangerous identity and intentions of their bearers.  The mixture of uncertainty, curiosity, and fear that indexes such as detached shadows provoke in us appears to be instinctive and automatic: in our history as a species it probably paid in survival terms to be keenly attentive, rather than indifferent, to indexical signs of movement of large objects such as fellow human beings or animals in one’s proximity.[7]  This is why an unexpected large shadow emerging from behind a tree, rock, or wall, in a film as well as in life, instantly catches our attention, triggering curiosity mixed with fear.  One of the clichés of animated cartoons is a shadow quickly expanding around some hapless figure about to be crushed by a falling rock or some other large and heavy object (plenty of examples in the Looney Tunes, especially those involving Wile E. Coyote and his futile attempts to catch the Road Runner in the Grand Canyon).  Our brains appear to be hard-wired for cues of danger coming from large objects, human, animal, or inanimate, especially when these cues are, as is the case with indexes, literally “indicative” of physically real rather than just imagined objects.

While natural indexes appeal to our senses, primal emotions and imagination because of their direct, physical connection with their referents, human communication also appears to be based to a large extent on signs that are not physically caused by their referents but only resemble them to some extent.  A person’s shadow is caused by and therefore physically inseparable from that person, but a painted portrait only resembles the person it is referring to.  The sitter has not inadvertently caused her image to be imprinted on a painting, the way one automatically creates one’s shadow or produces one’s reflection in the mirror, but has allowed the imagination and skill of the painter to create the visual resemblance on the canvass.  Apart from the similarity between the painted portrait and the sitter, which is formed in the minds of those contemplating the picture, there exists no direct, physical connection between the two.  In semiotics a sign whose form resembles its referent is called an icon, or an iconic sign.[8]

In analyzing the stylistic, dramatic, and symbolic function of cast shadows in artistic representations the iconic dimension is important, because shadows are not only physical extensions of their objects, but they can also resemble them in varying degrees.  For example, when the light falls on an object from an angle of forty-five degrees it produces on even ground an accurate dark silhouette of that object.  When falling from other angles light creates shadows that distort the shape of the object: a low-angle light, such as produced by the sun at dawn or sunset, casts shadows that are grotesquely elongated (Fig. 9), while a high-angle, mid-day light produces a shortened, squat version of the object.

Fig. 9. Long-angle light produces a grotesquely elongated shadow.

Regardless of the degree of distortion, as long as the shadow silhouette resembles an outline of the object and thereby defines its character to some degree, we are talking about the iconic quality of the shadow.  In Friedrich W. Murnau’s horror film Nosferatu (1922) the vampire approaches his victim’s bedroom in the form of a disembodied shadow in profile—its hunched, crooked-nosed and clawed-fingered silhouette capturing the distorted, hybrid, human-animal essence of its owner (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10. The shadow of a vampire in Nosferatu, dir. F. W. Murnau (1922).

But the iconicity of indexes such as natural shadows is of course not of the same kind as the iconicity of figurative arts.  In the case of natural indexes their occasional iconic character is still a function of the sign’s indexical origin, whereas the iconicity of figurative arts has entirely to do with the artists’ intention and skill.  Insofar as an index resembles its object in a perceptual (mostly visual) sense, it can be called an iconic index.[9]  Iconic indexicality covers a fascinating area of visual culture, including some of the most perceptually and cognitively powerful media and art forms such as the shadow theater, magic lantern shows, silhouette portraits, the camera obscura, photography, film, and television (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11. A man drawing a shadow silhouette of a seated woman.
Etching by J. R. Schellenberg (1775).

What these visual media have in common, and what distinguishes them from purely iconic art forms such as drawing, painting, and sculpting, is that they combine the effects of both iconicity and indexicality to stimulate our senses, emotions and imagination all the more effectively.  The reliance on an indexical, physical extension of the represented object makes the shadow theater, an image created by the camera obscura, a photograph or a film clip so much more efficacious in reflecting the outside world, and consequently so much more powerful in their emotive effect on viewers than purely iconic media, with their imagined rather than real connection with the world.  The iconic indexicality of a shadow or a photograph means that the images created by these media not only resemble their objects (with a resemblance often much higher than in most realistic painting), but that they are also physically consubstantial with the objects they represent in a way never attained by painting.  Shadows and photographs depend on the visible properties of the objects they represent, whereas paintings depend not so much on the objects themselves as on the painters’ beliefs about these objects.  Even in painting from life, the painted scene reflects only the painter’s belief of what is there, whereas a photograph or an iconic shadow (whether natural or as part of an artistic installation), captures an object or a scene in a way not affected by the artist’s beliefs.  In other words, iconic indexical media depict realities that already exist (although of course only the artist’s choice can disclose them), whereas iconic media create physically often non-existent (even if plausible) realities.  It is thus the combined emotive power of indexicality and iconicity that accounts for a truly “magical,” compelling effect of immediacy, curiosity, fear and urgency produced by cast shadows, either natural or contrived in the studio and incorporated into the dramatic structures of shadow plays and films.  German cinema from the Weimar period (1919–1933), especially in the films inspired for their horror plots by Gothic fiction and indebted for their visual style to contemporary Expressionist art, offers classic examples of cinematic appropriation of older indexical-iconic media such as cast shadows.

It is interesting for example to see that in the artistically ground-breaking The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Wiene, 1920) painted shadows and shafts of light are part of the highly stylized Expressionist décor for which the film has become so famous.  The few real and no less intentional cast shadows in the film belong to the inadvertent villain of the piece, the sleep-walking murderer Cesare, the symbolic emanation of Caligari’s deranged mind (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12. The shadow of a murderer in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,
dir. Robert Wiene (1920).

After Dr. Caligari cast shadows often accompany screen madmen, criminals, and supernaturals, in keeping with age-old beliefs that a person’s shadow represents their hidden, often evil, nature, their normally invisible inner self.  In Paul Wegener’s Der Golem (1920) for example the shadow of Rabbi Löw blends with the life-size outline of the titular clay figure on the wall, implying a spiritual affinity between the human maker and his magically animated humanoid creature (Fig. 13).

Fig. 13. Rabbi Löw, his shadow, and the clay humanoid creature
in Der Golem, dir. Paul Wegener (1920).

Unique in the Weimar film canon is Arthur Robison’s Warning Shadows (1923), a film conceived entirely around cast shadows (Fig. 14).  Here they represent the characters’ repressed desires—sexual lust, jealousy, and violence—which are allowed free play in a hallucinatory film-within-a-film designed to cure the characters of their potentially self-destructive urges, and generally to bring them to their senses.

Fig. 14. Two hands “touching” romantically in Warning Shadows, dir. Arthur Robison (1923).

Fritz Lang’s two-part mythical epic Die Nibelungen (1924), a stylistic accomplishment of the highest order, provides superb examples of contrasts between light and shadow to separate good guys from the bad, and on the esthetic level to differentiate between grounds of action and enhance a sense of dramatic space (Fig. 14).

Fig. 14. Self-shadows help separate grouds and enhance a sense of depth in
Die Nibelungen, dir. Fritz Lang (1924).

Friedrich W. Murnau’s rococo chamber drama Herr Tartüff (1924) takes us into the semi-darkness of candlelit interiors, where shadows flitting across the walls project the characters’ folly, gullibility, and hypocrisy, as devised in Molière’s satirical play.  The smoke-filled and doom-laden chiaroscuro style of Murnau’s Faust (1926) elevates the play of light and shadow onto a metaphysical plane as a struggle between the cosmic forces of good and evil.  Towards the end of the Weimar period folk supernaturalism and the occult return to the screen in Carl Th. Dreyer’s avant-garde, dream-like Vampyr (1932) with its “white” esthetics, in which an abandoned country windmill, an ice-house, and a plaster factory provide eerie settings for encounters with disembodied shadows of ghosts and vampires.

Intentional shadows, suggestive darkness, atmospheric or symbolic chiaroscuro lighting as part of the visual semiotics of film continue to be employed in Weimar cinema from mid-1920s onward in the urban dramas conceived in a more realistic style of the New Objectivity.  Beginning with Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) and culminating in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) the contrasting visual styles of Expressionism and the New Objectivity help differentiate between urban socio-economic milieus, whereby cheerless tenement dwellings tend to be illuminated by shadowy, depressed, low-key lighting, while downtown hotels, night clubs, and stylish apartments enjoy the high-key electric brilliance as a sign of the modern age.  Typically in the German urban films of the late 1920s light tends to be associated with modernity, wealth and success, and darkness with backwardness, poverty and failure.  As in the Hollywood film noir decades later, in Weimar cinema the symbolic cast shadow always remains an esthetic choice as part of the Expressionist repertoire of visual tricks to provoke symbolic meanings, create poetic mood and heighten emotion.  It is also tempting, after the horror of World War II, to interpret retrospectively the dark shadows that scared the cinema audiences during the Weimar period as intimations of the disastrous consequences of Germany’s fateful turn towards Nazi dictatorship in 1933.  Back in 1926 in Friedrich W. Murnau’s Faust a gigantic figure of Satan (Fig. 15) extends its dark wings over a small town, blowing black pestilential wind towards its unsuspecting inhabitants . . .

Fig. 15. Satan’s dark wings engulf a town with pestilence in Faust, dir. F. W. Murnau (1926).


[1] Colin Harding, Simon Popple, In the Kingdom of Shadows: A Companion to Early Cinema (London/Madison & Teaneck: Cygnus Arts/Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), 8.

[2] Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (Berkeley-Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1960), 252.

[3] Stoichita, Victor Ieronim, A Short History of the Shadow (London: Reaktion, 1997), 150–1.

[4] Richard L. Gregory, Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing, 5th edn (1966; Oxford-Tokyo: Oxford University Press, 1998), 189.

[5] David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 7th edn (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 191, 194;.

[6] Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers, eds. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1998), vol. II, 143, 161–5; Tony Jappy, Introduction to Peircean Visual Semiotics (London-New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 84–90; Piotr Sadowski, From Interaction to Symbol: A Systems View of the Evolution of Signs and Communication (Amsterdam-Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2009), 34–6.

[7] Henry Plotkin, The Nature of Knowledge: Concerning Adaptations, Instinct and the Evolution of Intelligence (London: Penguin Books, 1994), 103.

[8] Jappy, Introduction to Peircean Visual Semiotics, 79–84; Sadowski, From Interaction to Symbol, 36–8.

[9] Piotr Sadowski, ‘Between Index and Icon: Towards the Semiotics of the Cast Shadow’, in From Variation to Iconicity: Festschrift for Olga Fischer, ed. Anne Bannink and Wim Honselaar (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Pegasus, 2016), 331–46.



“Sadowski’s elegantly written account of the use of light and shadow in German cinema of the Weimar era is a welcome reminder of the enduring artistry of this influential filmmaking era. Detailed and erudite, the author traces the use of the shadow as communication back to the ancient Greeks, through Caravaggio and Rembrandt, to Berlin in the 1920s.  Always careful to contextualize, Sadowski interweaves a discussion of key historical events and artistic movements with intricate textual analysis. Thoughtfully argued and beautifully illustrated, this is an important contribution to semiotics as a discipline and to the history of film as art.”–Ruth Barton, Associate Professor in Film Studies, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland;

“This carefully crafted and beautifully illustrated book covers the topic comprehensively, culminating in a detailed and informative discussion of the classics of Weimar cinema.  Piotr Sadowski’s expert knowledge of cinema history—evident on every page—is seamlessly woven into a much broader cultural history of the treatment of the shadow in the visual arts—from Caravaggio to Caligari.”–Dr Michael Kane, Lecturer in Literature and Cultural Theory, Dublin Business School, Ireland;

“Who would have guessed there is so much substance in shadows?  What makes shadows solid?  How do artists manipulate them?  These are some of the questions raised in Sadowski’s fascinating investigation into ‘the kingdom of shadows’.  His solid research shows what the (un)intentional presence or absence of shade and shadow can add to how we ‘read’ Renaissance visual arts, Weimar cinema, Chinese shadow-theatre, the spiritual world and much much more.”–Olga Fischer, Professor Emeritus of English Linguistics, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands;

“A brilliant study of a seminal period in European cinematic history.  It combines insightful aesthetic analysis and nuanced discussion of the socio-cultural background of Weimar Germany.  After reading the book it is impossible to see cinematic light and shadows in the same way again, not only in viewing the movies of the Weimar period, but those which follow to the present day.”–Dr Rory McEntegart, Academic Dean, American College Dublin, Ireland.


Piotr Sadowski ( teaches film, literature and drama in Dublin Business School, Ireland.  His new book, The Semiotics of Light and Shadows: Modern Visual Arts and Weimar Cinema, will be published in Bloomsbury Advances in Semiotics series in early 2018 (

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