When thinking of the Bauhaus the first images that usually come to mind are those of Herbert Bayer’s iconic typeface, Marcel Breuer’s sitzmaschinen or of Dessau’s architecture still visible today.
Yet, looking closer through the pages of the school’s history, one can see other images, moving images that have mostly been neglected by film books and anthologies. To a static, monolithic image, a dynamic and at times very colorful one is instantly opposed.
Questions arise: did a “Cinema of the Bauhaus” really exist? While other avant-garde movements were experimenting with film in the years between 1919 and 1933, what happened in Weimar and Dessau’s laboratories?
The only Bauhaus artist whose name is consistently associated with film is Hungarian constructivist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
His book Malerei, Photographie, Film (1925) is the only volume of the Bauhausbücher to analize film as an expressive language, and has been for many years the sole tangible trace of the relationship between the school and the medium.
Experimental film programs often feature part of Moholy-Nagy’s diverse production ranging from social reportage to pure abstraction.
In the same way, the young Bauhaus students who worked with (sometimes without) cameras in ateliers, or in the turbulent streets of the Weimar Republic, left us with a body of work whose pieces are difficult to put together retrospectively.
What did Ella Bergmann-Michel’s documentaries about Das Neue Frankfurt and Kurt Kranz’s abstract works have in common?
To answer this question it is first necessary to remove from one’s mind the stereotypical and static image of the Bauhaus to which we referred in the first lines of this text.
When it comes to film, in fact, we could say it all started with a party.
Kurt Schwerdtfeger and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, whose work on the Reflektorische Lichtspiele is mentioned in a few lines of Moholy-Nagy’s book, write in their memoires that they realized it was possible to manipulate light, color and frequency of projections while setting up paper lanterns for one of the frequent Bauahaus festivals.
A film class was never truly instituted in the school’s program. But while the better known Absolute Film was being conceived, 21-year-old Bauhaus student Werner Graeff was introduced by Theo van Doesburg to established artist Hans Richter, with whom he later produced Alles dreht sich, Alles bewegt sich (1929) and Vormittagsspuk (1927).
The young students we named above had already experimented with film long before their teacher Moholy-Nagy himself.
Each of them used the medium in a very different and innovative way. There was no film manifesto like there was for “real” film movements, but there was the Bauhaus manifesto. Applied to cinema, it translated to the radical removal from the frame of everything that was not film: actors, sets, ultimately mimesis itself.
These were principles derived from a new architecture, whose aim was to build windows instead of walls, to promote transparency where there was obscurantism, to cut through the horror vacui of ornament using each material in its specific quality and function.
The German silent film era was experienced as an architectural event, and it was in this explicit “architecturalization of film” as Janet Ward defines it, that Weimar had the primacy, compared to any other national cinema in history. On one hand progressive architecture and urbanism had to build a different way of living on the ruins of Whilelminismus.
On the other, experimental filmmakers fought what Siegfried Kracauer called the Kaliko-Welt of the studio’s massive mainstream production. The term Cinéma de laboratoire, used in a derogatory acception by critics of the time, becomes today the best one to define each of the Bauhaus films. While they might not share the same style or subject matters, these artists were united by a “handcrafted” practice of cinema: their films were basically, and often literally, the result of the work of an individual. As it was for applied arts in Gropius’ school, the laboratory was the crucial tòpos for filmmaking.
From a functionalist perspective, the Bauhaus filmmakers did not see the “total artwork” as the wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk anymore, as an “accumulation of the arts”: it was rather a synthesis, realized with a technical and “laboratorial” approach.
While these principles can be recognized in the politics of Moholy-Nagy and Bergman-Michel’s documentaries, they become evident in the abstract films by Kurt Kranz, Werner Graeff and others. In his book Space, Time and Architecture. The Growth of a New Tradition Siegfried Giedion writes on the cubist’s conquest of space: “The human eye awoke to the spectacle of form, line, and color – that is, the whole grammar of composition.”
While observing these forms, lines and colors, the more or less accomplished experiments by these filmmakers, the spectator will have the privilege to catch a glimpse of something that lies beyond the visual experience.
A utopian project that like any other human endeavor worthy of this definition was imperfect, at times contradictory or misguided.
From this perspective, these films can show us how the school founded by Walter Gropius had many different souls and how it changed profoundly throughout the years. What remained constant was the basis of its teachings: the purpose of all activities is to build.
It taught its students that art could affect lives using technique, acting in the disruptive process of change that came with the rise of mass society, rather than being homologated and consequently obliterated by its monotonisierung.
Text by Maurizio Buquicchio, co-curator and presentator of this Eye on Art program.
Maurizio Buquicchio (Italy, 1981) obtained a Phd in Film History from the Visual Arts department of the University of Pisa with a research concerning the relationship between Bauhaus and film in the period 1919 – 1933. His activity as a researcher and curator is focused on the contamination between film and the other arts. He writes for Cinergie, cinema and the other arts and other publications, worked as Chief Curator and Head of Content for the media platform ikono tv in Berlin and as assistant for the filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub and the video artist Reynold Reynolds.
Films will be accompanied with live music by Örs Köszeghy.
Cellist Örs Köszeghy (Budapest 1980) studied at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam and is an expert in modernism. He was also involved in the previous Cello Biennal. For the live musical accompaniment of the films he selected work by Paul Hindemith, Sándor Veress and Ernst Křenek. In 1922 Hindemith wrote the music for Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballett, a prime example of Bauhaus aesthetics.
Films in the program:
Komposition 1 en 2 (Werner Graeff, 1922, Germany, 4 min, no sound)
Grossstadtzigeuner (László Moholy-Nagy, 1932, Germany, 16 min, no sound)
Lichtspiel Schwarz-Weiss-Grau (László Moholy-Nagy, 1930, Germany, 6 min, no sound)
Schwarz: Weiss / Weiss: Schwarz (Kurt Kranz, 1929, Germany, 2 min, no sound
Der Heroische Pfeil (Kurt Kranz, 1930, Germany, 2 min, no sound)
Filmstudie (Hans Richter, 1925, 5 min, Germany, no sound)
Vormittags-Spuk (Hans Richter, 1928, Germany, 6 min, sound)