“Der absolute Film”

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Musical metaphors played an essential role in the aesthetic reflections that laid the foundations of “abstract cinema.” This label, coined in 1921 by critic Theo van Doesburg, openly alluded to music right from the beginning. In describing Eggeling and Richter’s experimental films, van Doesburg wrote about “visible music” – meaning a composition that “unfolds” right before our eyes, “not unlike what happens in music.”

What the short films of Eggeling, Richter, and Ruttmann have in common is the fact that they give a musical guise to what is purely visual material. As a visual art, “art for the eyes,” abstract cinema aspires to organize time rigorously, according to autonomous syntactic principles.

In this search for a visual language with a highly formalized syntax, no other art could have provided such a powerful conceptual paradigm as art music––especially absolute instrumental music. The drive toward the abstract explains the frequent use of musical titles in films, as well as the title of the Berlin Film matinee Der absolute Film––which took place on May 3, 1925, at the Ufa-Theater am Kurfürstendamm––in which members of the Novembergruppe presented the results of their experiments. The idea of an “absolute cinema” explicitly recalls the notion of “absolute music:” just like pure instrumental music, abstract cinema aspired to an autotelic language, a language that relied solely on its own idiosyncrasies, to the point of being ultimately reduced to the unfolding of lines, colors, and forms in time.

The essay presents a detailed investigation of musical metaphors lying at the basis of the aesthetic manifesto of abstract cinema and a survey of their mediating role in the film analysis. As a paradigmatic case study, the analysis focuses on the audiovisual construction of Walter Ruttmann’s Lichtspiel Opus 1 (1921), with the accompanying score by Max Butting.

Francesco Finocchiaro, “Der absolute Film”: Über die musikalischen Metaphern im ästhetischen Manifest des abstrakten Films. In Novembergruppe 1918: Studien zu einer interdisziplinären Kunst für die Weimarer Republik, edited by Nils Grosch. Münster: Waxmann, 2018, pp. 181–193.