Essay by Marion von Hofacker Richter’s Films and the Role of the Radical Artist 1927-1941

Marion Hofacker

Two years after the Kipho exhibition Richter made Vormittagsspuk, (1) another work that pushed the boundaries of film. Although a literal translation of the title is “To Spook before Noon,” or “Morning Spook,” Richter titled the English film version “Ghosts before Noon” and “Ghosts before Breakfast.” These translations sound better in English, but convey a different message than the original title (stemming from the verb “to spook,” as opposed to the noun “ghost”). The film, dated 1927-28, is about anarchy during the post-World War I era and suggests the collapse of everything that is self-understood, whether institutional, political, or social. Weinberg describes Vormittagsspuk as

‘an experimental film for the International Music Festival, Baden-Baden, 1928. A humorous grotesque in which objects (hats, ties, coffee cups, etc.) rebel against their daily routine. “Objects are also people” and “[they] follow their own laws”-“the rhythm of the clock” (H.R.). At the stroke of noon they gladly return to their functional state. Hindemith’s score was played by an orchestra in the theatre pit whose conductor led them from a rolling score synchronized to the speed of the film. This pre-sound device was invented by Robert Blum.’ (2)

The story of Vormittagsspuk was originally intended to follow Werner Gräff’s film script about the rebellion of revolvers. Richter opposed this idea, reasoning that revolvers that rebel do not shoot; therefore, not shooting is not an action. Richter settled on a story about benign objects that rebel instead. “We all had bourgeois bowler hats on.” The hats were attached to black strings on long poles and were swung from the top of a garage in front of the camera. “We tried to de-naturalize the natural movement of the objects, and we studied their movements. In other words, we got into the swing of their lives. And we studied their lives and we conversed with them, so to say. In playing with them, in letting them do what they want, suddenly a kind of rhythm developed which became a kind of political satire.” (3)

Today’s viewer might question how rhythm can become a political satire, but at the time of the shooting of Vormittagsspuk, in the mid-twenties, the objects and images used in the film had meanings and connotations which would have been obvious to a contemporary viewer. On the one hand, the film projects images of people who are devoid of any individuality. Their movements are passive, automatic, functional, as if motorized, robot-like, and identical. People function as objects and are manipulated by the whims of these inanimate objects that have come alive, teasing, playing and tantalizing their masters, doing so in a light, graceful and funny manner as if it were a joke.

The reversal of roles for people and inanimate objects was subversive in itself, since the conventional role of objects was anchored in tradition. But this alone cannot explain how provocative Vormittagsspuk seemed in its original reception. The film’s political overtones appeared obvious to censors and caused difficulties for Richter. The Nazis, too, saw the film as a political satire that was intended to convey destabilization of the status quo. This was significant as National Socialism was rapidly gaining ground in Germany, especially in the big cities. Vormittagsspuk was looked upon as an invitation for people to be critical, to ask questions and to keep watch on the way political events were developing.

Vormittagsspuk is full of hidden as well as obvious meanings, imagery anchored in the German Romantic tradition. The hands of the clock showing five minutes to twelve is a metaphor signifying danger. Danger is imminent, it is five to twelve, this is the last chance before noon, time is up and everything will be different. This is also expressed by a common German expression, “Five minutes to twelve.” Politicians most often use this phrase to indicate that no more time can be lost; it is time to gather one’s senses and prepare for change. When the clock strikes twelve no more can be done.

The flying hat is another potent metaphor that is central to Vormittagsspuk. For a period of 100 years beginning in 1827 the hat was commonly used as a symbol in German literature. A well-known example appears in the text of Franz Schubert’s Leider cycles Winerreise and Lindenbaum (4). In the German culture of the nineteenth century, hats that fly from people’s heads were a sign of existential danger looming in the near future. The hat was the quintessence of the bourgeois citizen and a symbol of the status quo. Pictures and words indicating that hats that no longer fitted well, and were threatening to slip off heads, indicated that society’s stability was in danger. A more familiar twentieth-century image is cited by Walter Benjamin about Charlie Chaplin’s trade mark bowler hat: “His derby wobbles for a lack of a secure place on his head, giving away the fact that the reign of the bourgeoisie is wobbling too.” (5)

Among other contemporary work this metaphor can be found in a 1920 collage by Max Ernst, The Hat Makes the Man. The man who doesn’t wear a hat is no longer a citizen. Under the pretence of puppet-like conformity, the Dada-dandy is able to crack the rigid, paralyzed nature of society by means of subversive infiltration.

The flying hats also refer to a German linguistic pun. The German phrase meaning “being taken care of, protected or shielded” is behütet sein, while the similar behutet sein, means “wearing a hat”. Behutsam, furthermore, means “wary, careful, or cautious.”

The flying hat symbolically conveys that the innermost conditions of society are shaken to the core. But the two predominant symbols in Vormittagsspuk, the clocks at five minutes to twelve, and the hats, are particularly ominous in combination. When a ghost in the morning causes hats to fly, things are bad enough; but that is only the beginning: after twelve, and the long night over Germany (here interpreted to mean 1933), heads will also fly. Richter’s own essay “My experience with Movement in Painting and Film” offers a rather different interpretation of these symbols, which limits discussion to aesthetic considerations: “mostly natural elements (real objects) articulated by strong rhythmical movement. Clocks, legs, ladders, hats, used as free forms, not respecting their conventional behavioural significance, but nevertheless, assembled with a beginning (indicated by the clock at 11.50) and with an end (12 o’clock noon). These ‘10 minutes’ are filled with totally irrational happenings… but they still make a kind of story.” (6)

Characteristically, Richter does not describe the irrational happenings as subversive. On the contrary, he claims the story is created by the flow of visual images which always make a story, whether there is one or not; “That is how our mind works.” Although he does not talk about the role of the unconscious in his creative process, he concedes that there is a level that is not literal. “I did not look at natural objects as literal elements.” In film “every object tells a ‘story’ and awakens some emotional or representational association, regardless of the context in which it is experienced.” The emotional or representational association Richter talks about is not illuminated. However, it is significant that his film images do have more meaning than their simple, literal one (the one stemming from the mundane function). Beyond the emotional or representational association is the idea of an object as a kind of collective memory that society has in relation to an image. But Richter leaves these meanings up to his viewers. He says, “In addition to the emotional connotation of every object, I learned that there was an abstract, or purely visual, significance as well.” (7) Ultimately, however, the abstract or purely visual meaning of Vormittagsspuk also contributes to its subversive potential: the techniques and devices of Neues Sehen that create an ‘unreal world’ of close-ups/long shots, tracking shots, unusual camera angles, quick cutting, slow motion, distortions, and soft focus photography.

The principles of New Vision are applied throughout Vormittagsspuk. For example, in the ladder sequence concrete forms take on an abstract character, becoming lines and patterns of shading by varying the perspective when photographing the object. Richter’s film is also “technically significant because he’s attempting to incorporate all plastic elements of cinematography known to cinematographers at that time into the film using forward, backward motion, fast and slow, everything he could think of to jolt the spectator to make it as much of a disruptive experience as possible.” Additionally, the “image of the clock is a reflexive image and has a certain temporal presence; and we’re lulled into thinking when you see a nice image of the clock, that it is going to be a nice, stable, euclidean universe. And then, of course the film immediately subverts any kind of expectations you might have along those lines.” (8)

This is typical of the avant-garde screen of the time, which did not confine itself to human interaction in the manner of commercial cinema, but abounded with close ups of inanimate objects and a preference for unfamiliar sights. Every shot in Vormittagsspuk is ultimately reversed; men climb up a ladder rung by rung, then go down again; coffee cups are filled and emptied; hats levitate, people go looking for them, they settle again; pistols turn from one direction to the opposite direction, then multiply; hoses coil and then recoil. It is an irreverent film; casual, playful and delightful. (9)

Excerpt from: Stephen C. Foster (ed.), Hans Richter: Activism, Modernism, and the Avant-Garde, Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1998, pp. 131-136
(1) Weinberg, Index, 11. Designed and directed by Richter. Photography: Reimar Kuntze. Music: Paul Hindemith (lost). March music played by a Bavarian brass band was later added by Richter. Original length 900 feet; released by Tobis in 450 feet. (Recorded by Tobis in 1929.) Actors: Darius and Madelaine Milhaud, Jean Oser, Walter Gronostay, Werner Gräff, Paul Hindemith, and Hans Richter.
(2) Weinberg, Index, 11.
(3) Hans Richter qtd. in Barbara Lass, Hans Richter: Film Artist, master’s thesis, New York University, 1982, 107-108. Text of video. Original source of Richter film clip unknown.
(4) Reinhard Pabst, letter to Marion von Hofacker, January 1996.
(5) Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 6 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972), 104.
(6) Richter, “My Experience with Movement in Painting and in Film,” in The Nature and Art of Motion, ed. Gyorgy Kepes (New York: George Braziller, 1965), 152.
(7) Ibid., 155.
(8) Interview with Don Crafton in Lass, Hans Richter: Film Artist, 109-110.
(9) Interview with Standish Lawder, ibid., 110-111.

© Marion von Hofacker 2006

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