Hans Richter was a Berlin-born artist and filmmaker known as one of the early pioneers of Dada, the subversive cultural and artistic movement that prevailed in the years during and immediately after the First World War. After that, he would go on to lay the groundwork for much of Surrealism and the Avant-Garde.
Richter started out his career as an artist, beginning work in 1905 at the age of 17, his early paintings and graphic work being heavily influenced by Cubism. But after serving in the war from 1914 to 1916, Richter left Germany and found himself drawn to Zurich where he was converted to the ideals of Dadaism, a movement which advocated the notion that an artist’s responsibility was to be actively political, oppose war and support revolution. In art, these near-anarchistic ideals were conveyed through the rejection of conventional ideas about form and aesthetics. Hence the production of abstract art became a common attribute of many of the Dadaists.
All this provides a good basis for understanding the series of short avant-garde films that Richter produced through the 1920s. Richter had first produced abstract art in 1917, but in 1918 he started toying with filmmaking and found it to be a much more effective medium in which to convey his abstract sensibilities. Though he never had any formal training in filmmaking, he would go on to become one of the main players in the cinematic avant-garde producing some famously surreal works that more often than not also offered a subversive political commentary on 1920s Germany.
Richter’s antiestablishment ideas are much in evidence in his film Inflation from 1928, which depicts the hyperinflation that crippled Germany during the two World Wars. In a series of quickening edits, we see the exchange of money equate to a rapidly increasing number of zeros. This is interspersed with the occasional shot of a cigar-smoking tycoon. Capitalism, it would seem, is very much to blame for the worsening economic crisis, according to Richter. With a musical score that hurtles along increasing in tempo and pitch, there is a definite sense of the loss of control and farcical nature of the inflation. As a political film, Richter’s derisive opinions on Capitalism are much in evidence.
In Everything Turns, Everything Resolves, Richter produced one of the first German films to use sound technology. Set in a country fair, there is a strongly surreal tone to the film with slow motion jugglers and strong men appearing to walk up the side of the camera frame. As the pace of the film escalates with the soundtrack becoming ever more frenetic towards the end, there is again a sense of loss of control. The enraptured country fair audience appears to revel in this, pointing to a critique on Weimar society, as Richter saw it.
Rhythm 21 , though not the first abstract film to be made, as Richter often claimed, nevertheless is still one of the most significant. Through playing with a series of shapes; squares, rectangles and lines, and seeing how they interplay, Richter was boiling down the medium of film to its constituent parts i.e. basic shapes. In so doing, movement, time and light are the only elements left. Having these shapes move around within the confines of the camera frame was, for Richter, the discovery of cinematic rhythm. He later said about it:
“ Rhythm expresses something different from thought. The meaning of both is incommensurable. Rhythm cannot be explained completely by thought nor can thought be put in terms of rhythm, or converted or reproduced. They both find their connection and identity in common and universal human life, the life principal, from which they spring and upon which they can build further.”
This fascination with rhythm would go on to become the grounding for much of his filmmaking career. In Race Symphony, Richter moves away from the abstract and into the documentary field, depicting those on their journey to a day at the races. Though the subject matter may be less experimental that some of his other films, Race Symphony is no less dependent on rhythm with a series of shots depicting trains, buses and cars in motion, culminating in one long shot following the rhythm of the horses as they charge around the racetrack. Shown as a prelude to a feature film, this was Richter’s attempt to bring his notions about cinematic rhythm to the masses.
Filmstudie (1926) indicates Richter’s move into surrealism territory. Using the photograph of a human face together with floating eyeballs and abstract shapes akin to his Rhythm films, Richter is merging not only the mediums of photography, art and film but also the real and the abstract. For Richter, natural and abstract forms were interchangeable; hence images of eyeballs were placed on top of faces and interspersed with bold abstract shapes.
Rhythm 23 continues from where Rhythm 21 left off but this time only features square shapes and diagonal lines and the revealing interplay between them. Again, as the objects collide into each other and hypnotically alter size and shade, the sheer minimalism of the film means that it is the rhythm of the objects that takes centrestage.
Ghosts Before Breakfast from 1927 is one of Hans Richter’s most famous films and an amalgamation of the abstract, surreal and rhythmic qualities that had made up much of his previous cinematic work. In the film, objects such has hats, clocks, beards and teacups take on a life of their own, dancing across the screen whilst people are left helpless to control them. Rhythm is again alluded to when a clock is shown to periodically move forward by 10 minutes every second. Through having these inanimate objects suddenly gain an agency of their own, Richter was most likely making a political point and hinting at the instability of 1920s Germany. Politics aside though, Ghosts Before Breakfast is a mesmerising film with Richter’s hypnotic choreography and the sense of unease that this generates, still affecting to watch today. For audiences of the time who’d never experienced special effects and surrealism paired together on the screen, the film must have been truly startling; helping to cement it’s status as an avant-garde masterpiece.
After the success of his avant-garde films in the 1920s, Richter was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1933 and after travelling through Europe for several years eventually settled in New York, living out the rest of his life in the United States. Though he continued with his film career and went on to make several feature films, it is still his groundbreaking early experimental films for which he is best known, and which proved highly inspirational for the next generation of Avant-Garde artists.
Dada Companion, ‘Hans Richter Biography’
Stein, Jannon, ‘Abstract Films from the 1920s: Making Rhythm Visible’, 06/13/11
Suchenski, Richard, ‘Hans Richter’, Senses of Cinema, Issue 49.