Welcome to Avant-Garde 101, a series in which Double Exposure offers an introduction to the rich history of experimental cinema.

In this installment, Maya Rosmarin checks out a German classic from 1928 by Hans Richter, whose Filmstudie (1926) is screening at NYFF tonight.

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There is little need to contextualize Vormittagsspuk, as Hans Richter seems to do the job for us with his opening title card.  It reads, in translation: “The Nazis destroyed the sound version of this film as ‘degenerate art.’  It shows that even objects revolt against regimentation.”  Richter’s opening statement sets a tone of subversive rebellion for a largely paradoxical short film that is both deafening and colorful, without the use of sound or color.

Vormittagsspuk, or Ghosts Before Breakfast, strikes an interesting balance between stability and instability.  In the first shot, a large, white-faced clock strikes 10:00 and then, within a matter of ten seconds, an hour has passed.  A minute later, our clock appears again, and this time it is 11:30.  Another three minutes elapse, and it’s now 11:10.  The clock is disorienting, but grounded by the film’s inherent rhythm.  Richter plays with jerky movement in a way that gives the film a frantic and staccato, but consistent cadence.  A particularly rhythmic sequence is composed from a series of shots of a man walking up and down a ladder, crosscut with a shot from the rear of three grown men crawling on the ground in synchrony.

Richter not only balances Ghosts Before Breakfast temporally, but spatially.  There is a recurring motif of reflections and rotating images throughout, notably, a sequence of shots in which two men fight one another.  These swift cuts are alternated with close shots of an old man’s mouth, laughing and displaying a shelf of decaying teeth.  This technique both borrows from and contributes to the Soviet Montage philosophy of colliding various images together – changing the context and, in this case, giving the sequence an eerie, menacing quality.  The old man’s face, in profile, switches back and forth between screen right and left so that, while unsettling, his presence is entirely balanced in the frame.

One of the most striking images in the film is of four ghostly hats that float in the air, eluding the grasp of the men to whom they belong.  Here, the people are the objects and the objects are the subjects.  It is only after the four men sit down, near the conclusion of the film that the hats settle onto their heads, ending their rebellion.  The film rounds out by returning to the image of the same clock, approaching 12:00, only to split down the middle and reveal the singular cursive word “Ende.”  The four men sit down around a crooked table to eat because 12:00 is, of course, time for breakfast.