Overview of the German Avant-Garde
Overview of the German Avant-Garde
Special Feature──Research on the development of Pre-War Japanese Avant-garde Cinema: Discussing Avant-garde Cinema in Germany, France, and Soviet Union (I)

Translated by Tung Yung-Wei (童詠瑋)

The series “Revisiting Avant-Garde Films” expects to revisit the classics from two directions. One is to focus on the aspect of form, and the other is to introduce important works of film history in a guiding way. Simply put, to re-encounter the recognized classics more practically and specifically, instead of being overwhelmed by the established status, and honestly viewing the good or even the shortcomings. In a relatively pragmatic way, I would introduce how we could appreciate or analyze, share or teach and even write about these classic masterpieces.

The series of articles however mainly started from a small idea: Has European experimental films ever influenced Japanese films, especially between the 1920s and 1930s? So six related articles were derived to examine the development of this period of film history and the so-called avant-garde films. They would respectively discuss about the avant-garde films in Germany, France, Russia, Japan and other countries. First, let us start with the German avant-garde films in the 1920s.

This article would look for the experiments within what the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze’s called “dynamic sublime” (sublime dynamique) from two main genres of Expressionist films to Avant-Garde Absolute films. Different from the summary articales that could be found in the past, this one is detailed in specific sequences to analyze the aesthetic and even philosophical significance behind its form.

It is the beginning of 1920s, when Paul Klee and Kasimir Malevich were in charge, and Jean Arp and Piet Mondrian were rising after Paul Cézanne’s era.

“It was only after the first World War that the German cinema really came into being.”

“The films of the postwar period from 1920 to 1924 are a unique monologue intérieur. They reveal developments in almost inaccessible layers of the German mind.”

The above two quotes are from the first sentence of From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947) by noted film theorist, culture study scholar, Siegfried Kracauer and the last sentence before the discussion about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920). It is no coincidence that the “Expressionist films” that have made German cinema a profound record in film history and the “Absolute films” of the so-called “Avant-Garde films” both appeared in this period.

Kracauer’s motivation for writing this book might be doubtful which was to enrich the United States’ knowledge of Germany by academic research to some extent like other Germans in exile there, and the context he had compiled is thus limited or somewhat biased. But his observations are still quite accurate. The huge psychological influence after war would be transformed into specific visual color blocks.

What is Avant-Garde

Before we keep exploring several major German avant-garde films, perhaps we should clarify the definition of “avant-garde” first. As reminded in Theoretical and Critical Dictionary of Cinema (Dictionnaire théorique et critique du cinema, 2002), the term was earliest referred in the military field, so we have to especially pay attention to the the fact that it “always contains the militant intention and controversial qualities.” Generally, the so-called “avant-garde” in literal, holds a more forward-looking spirit of exploration, and is usually self-conscious. It would be also appropriate to put it in this era of rapid development of silent film. Since the exploration of film materials was mainly focused on the narrative and how to make the films more realistic before the World War I. It is the era when the cinema was embryonic (around 1902 to 1915) and “as long as you make films, you make a contribution to the art of cinema.”

Of course, the term of “avant-garde” may not always appear in later related cinema discourses to avoid possible disagreements. For example, Deleuze would rather call all the contributions made by the filmmakers of the era with a suitable concept, montage, instead. Whether it is a narrative film (his analysis surely focused on the narrative ones), the German films from 1920 to the end of the silent film are also generally included in the German montage school. He has summed up several characteristics such as contrast, lines and the process from the inorganic to the spiritual with “dynamic sublime”.

Because of the focus on intensive composition, the contrast of light and shadow, volumes, and shapes are highlighted. Lines are also derived from contrast, and creates division at the same time, as the boundaries between light and shadow, life and inanimate. Nevertheless, by emphasizing the opposition and the integration between the latter, and the selection of materials tends to raise life to the inanimate from legends, the uniqueness of German montage lies in blurring the boundary between the inorganic and the organic.

Deleuze further pointed out that in order to achieve great dynamics, the camera itself must be liberated, from lifelessness to full of vitality. It could be seen in Variety (Varieté, 1925), where the shaking lens overlooked the crowd from the angle of aerialist’s viewpoint, or in The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann, 1924), where the camera could freely move since it was tied to a bicycle. The director of the latter film, F.W. Murnau brought such camera movements to Hollywood afterwards to achieve stronger autonomous movements such as the following shots of the mistress walking to the husband’s place and the husband later going to keep the appointment in Sunrise (1927).

The Aesthetics of Hans Richter

Richter believed that “the main aesthetic goal (for avant-garde cinema) is about its relationship with modern art: harmonious configuration of activities, analysis of movement, changes to the natural form of objects, breaking free from the restriction of stories, creating dreams and placing familiar objects into new backgrounds to make them unfamiliar.” In fact, he had a more ambitious ideal. He believed the loss of human perception was acquired. Therefore, making avant-garde films could stimulate it in three ways that he summarized which are the greatest contrast, the closest relationship and and the interaction between them, to awaken such human’s ability. It is exactly the “militancy” of him.

As a matter of fact, the three methods are not much different from the three characteristics of German montage summarized by Deleuze: contrast, lines, and the process from the organic to the inorganic and to the organic again. Although the light and shadow draw the division line, it at the same time connects the correlation between the elements as well. For example, in Destiny (Der müde Tod, 1921), when the sad wife passed a candle-shaped ladder when she went to find the god of death, it was filling the candles of life, waiting for her in the room. Or in Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1929), the reason why Jack’s image could gradually merge with the ones such as oil lamp, knife on the table through the cuts was also because Jack’s passion for Lulu slowly elicited jealous intent to murder. While the the doorman, who was crushed by the building, stole and wore the uniform, he seemed to be wearing the entire house. As for the integration of inorganic and organic, it is to create a wholeness (no matter which school it is, the most important effect of montage is in fact wholeness) which is also the most valued part by Richter, as he said: “Modern people are excluded from a whole field of perception and action.”

The film Diagonal Symphony (Symphonie Diagonale, 1924) was mainly divided into three parts by the diagonal harp-like pattern, and several (groups) of graphics like stairs, combs, waves, and rainbows were presented, alternated and blended through the dynamic lines.

[Click here] Diagonal Symphony (Symphonie Diagonale, 1924)

The approach of Richer is different. Under the inevitable contrast between black and white, he mainly dealt with the movement of color blocks. They contrasted, changed, rose and fell. The left side sometimes occupied the larger area, and suddenly the right side opposed and overwhelmed the left one. The structure of Rhythm 21 (Rhythmus 21, 1921) is very simple. In an overture-like sequence, a white square color block was at the center, sometimes extruded with black from top and bottom or left and right. It might be broken into several rectangles, which also indicated the visual protagonist of the second part. The rectangles in different directions from time to time had different “colors” (there may be gray) flowing in the screen. The squares and the rectangles fought against each other in the third part. Then, another negative-like “transition” took place, where the original white squares and black backgrounds turned into black squares and white backgrounds in reverse, repeating some of the movements from the overture. But the negative film once again indicated the “chaos” at the end after all, since the two slashes appeared all of a sudden, lines, rectangles, and squares all entangling together, until the recurrence of the big and small square which seemed to symbolize the heartbeat ended the three-minute short film.

[Click here] Rhythm 21 (Rhythmus 21, 1921)

As mentioned by Richter, the scroll-like dynamics pursued by Viking Eggeling were still too painting-oriented, and he appealed to the “section of time” instead. So we could see the more sophisticated structural designs in Rhythm 23 (Rhythmus 23, 1923) and Film Study (Filmstudie, 1926) try to open up the audience’s perception in the process of his practice on the characteristics of cinema he believes: the form and the arrangement of the flowing moments. In the example he has given, the audience who thought of making love after watching Rhyme 21, might be one representative as his or her perception was opened up by his works.

Therefore, compared to Rhythm 21, there are more usage of negative images in Rhythm 23. The whole film was like being divided into two halves, but with opposite colors and upside down. It was more or less affected by Eggeling (although Diagonal Symphony was not released until 1924, Richter had already seen the first two editions in 1922), which led to some steps-like images with finer image movements. When it came to Film Study, there were more elements added within, such as circles and spotlight shapes to achieve more intense image movements.  Yet, we could also seen more concrete images like eyeballs, human faces, birds and so on, which indicated Richter’s later turn towards surrealism.

As a result, the German Avant-Garde (we take it in a broader sense, including Expressionist narrative works) subsequently brought greater influence to the cinema, mainly from the geometry and contrast sought in realistic images. For example, the good use of windows to form cage-like shadows, or the detention of characters caused by blinds, would be the Alfred Hitchcock’s so-called “realistic expressionism”. However, the attempts of others like Richter were not in vain. People did find geometric images in more narrative films, and his contribution was appropriately concluded by Deleuze as “only to break its sensible attachments to the material, the organic, and the human, to detach itself from all the states of the past, and thus to discover the spiritual abstract form of the future.”

  • This article is an inviting article from ET@T’s criticism project “Archive Eyes: Taiwan’s Avant-Garde Culture and Its International Perspective” (2018-2020), which was subsidized from “Visual Arts Criticism” project in 2018, by the National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF).
  • Sponsors of “Visual Arts Criticism” project: The National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF), Winsing Arts Foundation, and Ms. So Mei-Chi.

Editor: Yeh Hsing-Jou
Proofreading: Yizai Seah

作者 Author
肥內(王志欽)Wang Chih-Chin
肥內(王志欽)Wang Chih-Chin