Absolute Film

1 Absolute Film

Abstract film is thought to have originated in the 1910s, shortly after the culturally revolutionizing innovation of abstract painting, which in view of its non-mimetic treatment of artistic material had oriented itself toward music. In an article with the salient title Abstract Cinema — Chromatic Music, originally published in 1912, the futurist Bruno Corra describes the filmic experiments he carried out with his brother Arnaldo Ginna.[1] However, neither has one of these early experiments survived, nor has the showing of an abstract film from this period been documented.

The beginning of the history of abstract film therefore begins with the work Lichtspiel opus 1 (Light-Play Opus 1) by Walter Ruttmann, which premiered in Berlin in 1921. Lichtspiel opus 1 is a painted, hand-colored animated film whose presentation was accompanied by live music composed by Max Butting. Beginning in 1923, the Rhythmus (Rhythm) films by Hans Richter were shown under different titles,[2] followed in 1925 by Symphonie Diagonale (Diagonal Symphony) by Viking Eggeling. These works already demonstrate essential elements of abstract film: the makers of all three were visual artists and also considered their works as examples of Malerei mit Zeit (‘painting with time’).[3] In their films, they sought to examine the nature of the relationship between forms in their temporal development and clearly indicated this reference to musical principles in the titles of the films. At the same time, there are also considerable differences between these pioneering works: Lichtspiel opus 1 had its own score written specifically for the film — the film therefore works with coordinated auditory and visual rhythms — whereas the Symphonie Diagonale was consciously intended to be silent, developing the rhythm solely by means of the image. Richter’s film, on the other hand, was sometimes shown with, sometimes without musical accompaniment.

However, a break occurred in abstract film very early on: in 1925, within the scope of the matinee Der Absolute Film (The Absolute Film) in Berlin, not only were abstract German films presented, but French works as well, such as Ballet mécanique (FR, 1924) by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, and Entr’acte (FR, 1924) by René Clair. Both Ruttmann and Richter subsequently turned away from abstract film; Eggeling died in 1925. Unlike the German film artists, Léger, Murphy, and Clair did not rely on translating music into abstract forms, rather they used real shots that they assembled according to the principles of collage and montage. They aspired toward a synthesis of the art of sound and the image in close collaboration with contemporary composers such as George Antheil and Erik Satie.

Oskar Fischinger continued the tradition of German abstract film, introducing three significant innovations: R1. Ein Formspiel (R1. A Play on Form) (DE, 1926/1927) is a silent multiprojection whose breathtaking tempo is still surprising even today. It is a precursor to Expanded Cinema developed out of Farblichtspiele (color light-plays).

Today, the Rhythmus films are distributed under the titles Rhythmus 21 and Rhythmus 23, which were put together in this form by Richter in the 1950s on the basis of the Rhythmus film material and consciously predated. None of the original versions of the first Rhythmus films that were shown have survived.