With the arrival of cinema as an artistic medium, a bunch of movements arose to portray emotions and themes through different techniques in filmmaking. One of the most important movements of the 1920’s is the surrealism movement. The Surrealism movement is described as a cultural movement that began in the early 1920’s. The reason behind the movement was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality” (Barnes, 2001). Before the movement included film, it was a medium of art that mostly contained illogical, wild, and strange creatures in paintings. Once film and cinema was more widely available and accepted as an artistic medium, the illogical dream like state of the surrealism paintings were translated onto film. This included the showing realism through surrealism where they combined documentary type films with artistic techniques. They would use the surrealistic techniques of quick cuts and juxtaposing (and sometimes) horrific images to critique modern society and ideals. This showed social problems in a new light that had not been seen through film before. Some referred to the movement as revolutionary in the film period and greatly attributed to the stylistic choices of independent films today.
The surrealism movement came about because “According to Breton, he and Vaché ignored movie titles and times, preferring to drop in at any given moment and view the films without any foreknowledge. When they grew bored, they left and visited the next theater. Breton's movie-going habits supplied him with a stream of images with no constructed order about them. He could juxtapose the images of one film with those of another, and from the experience craft his own interpretation,” (Matthews, 1971). Surrealists chose to use film as a medium because they saw it as an opportunity to portray the ridiculous as rational (Matthews, 1971).
Surrealism is defined as being “based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life” (Breton, 1924) according to Breton’s (1924) Manifesto. It erupted in Paris during the 1920’s during World War I. Surrealism was the first literary and artistic movement to become seriously associated with cinema (Kovacs, 1980). Its creation was aligned with the creation of film itself. However, due to the nature of surrealism and its lack of cinematic structure and congruency, film critics and historians alike have neglected it.
The first films that were made in the surrealism movement were in Paris, France. The first film was Entr’acte written and directed by René Clair. It is a 22 minute black and white film that included a new type of production called instantanéisme (Clair, 1924). The Dadaist approach to the film medium included watching people running in slow motion, things happening in reverse, a ballet dancer from underneath, and watching an egg turn into a bird instantly (Clair, 1924). The film became the first of its kind, using a Dada method to filmmaking that made quick jump cuts, non-lateral storylines and moving picture juxtapositions.
One of the most powerful surreal documentary films was Las Hurdes by Luis Buñuel. The movie, written and directed in 1932, was about the living conditions of the citizens in the mountains of Spain, and included juxtaposing images of them. It included images of a donkey being eaten by bees, the ignorant lifestyle of the Spanish countryside, inbreeding, and poor health management (Buñuel 1932). The strong and horrific images of real life in a less than structured surrealistic way make this an impactful documentary and the first of its kind. Most of the films during this era share the same type of creative thinking applied toward real life. For example, the surrealistic images and cuts presented in the movie with the real life images are a criticism of the Spanish government and contain antifascist themes. It is apparent through the stylistic choices of Buñuel that he is very upset and hopes that something will change to help the poverty in Spain.
This type of experimental cinema gave rise to a new genre of filmmaking, sometimes named avant-garde. Many films arose after Entr’Acte, including The Seashell and the Clergyman, L’Etoile de mer, Un Chien Andalou, and L’Age d’Or. Most of these films came out of Paris between the 1920’s and 1930’s, and were the first movies of the surrealism movement (Williams, 1981). The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) follows the erotic hallucinations of a priest lusting after the wife of a general. It is a film produced by Germaine Dulac that includes many iconic surrealistic techniques of filmmaking and is widely regarded as the film that is borrowed from the most. It is often overlooked because the works of Buñuel and Dalí who were the two most famous directors at that time often overshadowed the works of other surrealistic movement directors. Due to the nature of the dream like state of the hallucinations of the priest, it is hard to trust the images that are present before you and that is much like the surrealism movement films at that time (Dulac, 1928).
What makes this kind of filmmaking so interesting even with the total films being disjointed and some of them having no plot, they still convey themes and concepts that normal three act structure movies of the same vain would do as well. For example, in Un Chien Andalou (1928), Dalí and Buñuel created the film to show “the straight and pure 'conduct' of someone who continues to pursue love despite wretched humanitarian ideals, patriotism and the other poor mechanisms of reality” (Dalí and Buñuel, 1928). The scenes in the film by Dalí and Buñuel are raw, shocking, and jumpy. There is not a conscious flow or storyline to the movie but still uses individual scenes put together to portray emotions (Dalí 1928).
The movie un Chien Andalou is widely regarded as the first movie of the surrealism movement. It opened in 1928 to a widely renowned audience, which included Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, Jean Cocteaut, and many others (Wojcik 2001). The film was widely liked and received well, which disappointed Dalí because he felt it made the evening less exciting when the film was meant to shock and insult the audience (Wojcik, 2001).
It shows a lot of parallels to the German Expressionist movement of the same time period. In the German expressionist movement, art and film are created and distorted reality in such a way to invoke moods or ideas (Tejera, 1966). During the Weimar period, a lot of the films and art were expressionist films that used sound design and unusual filming techniques to show emotion or moods not typical of early cinema. Although similar in some senses, the surrealism movement is still different than the German expressionist movement because surrealism is free of conscious control which is still shown in German expressionism films. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most important samples of German expressionism films. It is expressionist because the sound design and set design are altered in such a way to express and invoke emotion, however it differs from surrealism because it still has a stream of consciousness and fluidity.
Another movement during the same time period is the French impressionism movement. This term refers to a group of French filmmakers during the 1920’s who played with camera and filming techniques such as camera distance, angle, and height, and the overall mise-en-scene of the films. It is often referred as the First Avant-Garde movement. However it has been hard to define the movement and what actually constitutes the reason behind it being a movement. Some of the directors during this movement are Abel Gance, Jean Epstein, Germaine Dulac, Marcel L’Herbier, Louis Delluc, and Jean Renoir.
French impressionism is akin to surrealism because it too uses a dreamlike state and different interpretations of what it means to be a film. In the early 1920’s French impressionistic films were relying more on montage editing which was not widely used in the films (except for the German expressionist films of the Weimar period).
It differs from the French Impressionism Cinema because although the French impressionism cinema uses different techniques, it still follows a certain formula that traditional movies use. The surrealism movement is the one that differs the most from other movements because its style is so erratic and disjointing that it is often misunderstood. However it has been shown that people enjoy and are intrigued by this sort of disjointed style of filmmaking.
The surrealism movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s went on to influence many movies and directors today. It is an important movement that showed different techniques and methods that could portray the same emotions that most movies portray. Many directors today including Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and even Walt Disney have been influenced by the same surrealistic film methods used back in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
The films of the surrealism movement are all different in their own right. The directors make their own independent choices on what techniques to use and how to follow the dream like state that shows up in most of the films. There are no congruencies between films of the surrealism movement between each other and they are labeled in a surrealism genre only because they are so erratic. These films are very important and show the creativity and design that makes cinema a beautiful cinema to explore. The films of this era are extremely interesting to watch and great to discuss because they show the ingenuity of the human mind and the creativity used to express emotions and invoke a response in human beings.
Barnes, Rachel. (2001). The 20th-Century art book. (Reprinted. ed.). London: Phaidon Press.
Kovacs, Steven. (1980). From Enchantment to Rage: The Story of Surrealist Cinema. London: Farleigh Dickenson UP.
Matthews, J. H. (1971). Surrealism in Film. University of Michigan Press.
Tejera, Victorino. (1966). Art and Human Intelligence. Vision Press Limited, London, pages 85,140.
Williams, Linda. (1981). Figures of Desire: A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film. Urbana: University of Illinois Press,
Wojcik, Pamela Robertson; Knight, Arthur. (2001). Soundtrack Available: Essays on Film and Popular Music. New York: Duke University Press. p. 37.
Buñuel, Luis, Dalí, Salvador. (1929) Un Chien Andalou. Film.
Buñuel, Luis. (1932). Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread). Film.
Clair, René. (1924). Entr’Acte. Les Ballets Suedois. Film.
Dulac, Germaine. (1928). The Seashell and the Clergymen. Délia Film.
Gondry, Michel. (2004). Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Focus Features. Film.