Abstract Films of the 1920s

(presentation by William Moritz, May 30, 1989)

The "avant-garde" films of the 1920s have been often mis-appraised, either from purely practical obstacles (unavailability of authentic prints with original tinting, music, speed) or from spurious academic practices (the failure to conduct first-hand scholarly research, or the false assumption that the 1920s films were primitive forerunners of post-World War II experimental films). This retrospective seeks to redress that situation by presenting a broad selection of reasonably authentic prints that demonstrate the astonishing accomplishment of the film artists of the 1920s.

Surprisingly, almost none of the early avant-garde films have been restored, and many of the key works are hardly available in common distribution. At Toronto this year, we will see restored or critical editions of several classics - Ruttmann's Opus 1, Ballet mécanique, Entr'acte, Fischinger's Wax Experiments, and the multiple-projection R-1 a Form-Play - as well as the short films of Henri Chomette and Germaine Dulac, which have not been distributed in North America and should be seen as major works amongst their peers.

No one should find the question of the nature, scope, and canon of the 1920s avant-garde an easy one. At that time, all independent and experimental work was categorized together and circulated through the chain of small theatres which eventually became the Associated Cine-Clubs and the League of Independent Film. This meant that adventurous features (like Caligari, Potemkin, Prince Achmed, or Smiling Mme. Beudet), creative documentaries (such as Cavalcanti's Nothing But Time, lvens's Rain, or Caballero's Essence of Verbena), and innovative art films (like Ruttmann's Opus films, or Ballet mécanique) rubbed shoulders without reservations or prejudice. Critics and artists used terms such as Absolute Film, Pure Cinema, and Integral Cinema (Germaine Dulac's term which might better be translated 'Self -Sufficient' or 'Complete' cinema) to stress that these works - all of them - functioned only as cinema art: that they could not exist in any other medium because their essential effect arose from the unique potentials of the cinematic mechanism, such as flexible montage of time and space, measured pacing and control of gaze, exact repetition, single-frame diversity and continuity, superimposition and its related split-screen imagery.

The small canon of some dozen films that are usually screened and written about today as the 1920s avant-garde - mostly associated with famous artists - hardly represent the whole output of that era. There are nearly two hundred shorter films mentioned in contemporary documents of screenings. Nor was the field strictly limited to 'film,' since the historic Berlin Absolute Film show (May 3, 1925), which brought together Entr'acte; Ballet mécanique; Ruttmann's Opus 2, Opus 3, and Opus 4; Eggeling's Diagonal Symphony; and Richter's half-minute Film is Rhythm; also included Hirschfeld-Mack's Color Sonata in Three Movements, performed as a live "light-show" using the Reflecting Color Instrument that he had constructed at the Bauhaus.

Perhaps the filmmakers of the 1920s were more open to experiments with colour-organs and dance performances because they themselves aspired to create films that rivaled the condition of music - not illustrations of music (Eggeling, for example, insisted that his films be screened in silence). Rather they brought a visual imagery that could perform a spectacle as free, subtle, and complex as music: free from the constraints of gravity and single viewpoint, richly layered and textured, and capable of evoking dynamic responses through nuances of rhythm, tensions of harmony, and dissonance. This 'musicality' was not at odds with other artistic goals. For example, Eggeling's fellow Dadaists seem to have seen his non-objective experiments as compatible with their own: something to replace the bourgeois art that Dada was busy ridiculing and destroying.

The International Congress of Independent Cinema at La Sarraz in 1929 is usually cited as the "end of the Avant-garde," but that conference was followed by a second International Congress at Brussels in 1930 (with Germaine Dulac as keynote speaker), and a number of other subsequent gatherings. The 'Great Depression' certainly curtailed production, but despite economic strictures (which are again upon us), an unbroken line of experimental filmmaking (and gathering) culminates in Toronto in 1989. If connective films (for example, Jiri Jehovec's Magic Eye or Rhythm, or the Robbins/Barlow/Hay/Hirsh Even as You and I) have generally fallen out of our critical discourse and our daily repertoire, the fault is ours, not theirs.

The films on this program neatly span the first decade of experimental filmmaking.

Walter Ruttmann's Light-Play Opus 1 was the first experimental film to be shown publicly in theatres as a work of cinematic art (during the month of April 1921). The film was hand-tinted, with a live musical score specially composed for it.

About the same time, Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter received their first animation tests back from the UFA studios: an unsatisfactory beginning of Eggeling's Horizontal-Vertical Orchestra, and a half-minute test that Richter would later show as Film is Rhythm.

Ruttmann continued with an Opus 2 in 1922 and, in connection with Lotte Reiniger's Prince Achmed, completed Opus 3 and Opus 4 in Berlin during 1923 and 1924, the same time as Oskar Fischinger was preparing his Wax Experiments in Munich, using a special machine of his own invention. Meanwhile, Man Ray, in Paris, composed Return to Reason for the Dada Soirée du coeur a barbe (Evening of the Bearded Heart), July 1923. Dudley Murphy's Ballet mécanique and René Clair's Entr'acte were both premiered in the late fall of 1924, at the same time that Eggeling was finishing his Diagonal Symphony.

Duchamp's Anemic Cinema (filmed by Marc Allegret and Man Ray) only appeared publicly in 1927, after Man Ray's own superb Emak Bakia. After thirteen years as a distinguished experimental feature director (including several music-oriented masterpieces such as the 1923 Smiling Mme. Beudet) Germaine Dulac, in the face of the relative failure of her wonderful Seashell and the Clergyman (1927) and the great success of Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou (1928), decided to concentrate on the purer, non-narrative abstractions in her Arabesque and Disque 957. And Ruttmann, despite his enormous success in poetic documentaries, returned to musical abstraction for In the Night, ten years after his first Opus.


Lichtspiel Opus Nr. 1 (Lightplay, Opus #1), Walter Ruttmann (1921, black and white, 10 min.)

Film ist Rhythmus (Film is Rhythm), Hans Richter (1921, black and white, 1 min.)

Le Retour à la Raison (Return to Reason), Man Ray (1923, black and white, 2 min.)

Wachs Experimente (Wax Experiments), Oskar Fischinger (1923, black and white, 8 min.) [1]

Opus Nr. 2 (1922), Opus Nr. 3 (1923), Opus Nr. 4 (1923), Walter Ruttmann (black and white, 10 min.)

Diagonal Symphony, Viking Eggeling (1924, black and white, 6 min.)

Ballet mécanique, Dudley Murphy (with Fernand Léger and Man Ray, 1924, music by George Antheil, black and white, 18 min.)

Entr'acte, René Clair (with Francis Picabia, 1924, music by Eric Satie, black and white, 20 min.)

Jeux des reflets et de la vitesse (Plays of Reflections and Speed), Henri Chomette (1923-25, black and white, 3 min.)

Anemic Cinema, Marcel Duchamp (1926, black and white. 6 min.)

R-1 ein Formspiel (R-1 a Form-play), Oskar Fischinger (1925-27, black and white, 6 min.) [2]

Etude cinégraphique sur une arabesque (Cinegraphic Study of an Arabesque), Germaine Dulac (1928, black and white, 5 min.)

Disque 957 (Phonograph recording #957), Germaine Dulac (1929, black and white, 6 min.)

In der Nacht (in the Night), Walter Ruttmann (1931, black and white, 6 min.)


-published in program booklet, International Experimental Film Congress. Toronto, Ontario: The Art Gallery of Ontario, in association with the International Experimental Film Congress, May 1989.


CVM Footnotes (added 2007)

[1] Moritz elsewhere assigns other dates to these Experiments.

[2] R-1 was originally part of a series of multiple projector performances; Moritz here refers to a single film approximating some material from the original performances.

Back to CVM Library

Back to Center for Visual Music

Email CVM