GHOSTS BEFORE BREAKFAST (Hans Richter, 1928)

Faces of clocks assure us that we are witnessing time as we know it, but our eyes protest. Four bowler hats float through space, at one point becoming three, but then being a foursome again. Water flows back into a hose. But let’s rewind for a moment. Starting his day at the mirror, which is to say, the camera, which is to say, us, a man is tying his tie, which won’t stay tied, frustrating him, delighting us. Reverse motion keeps untying his necktie.
     Ghosts must be afoot. In Hans Richter’s playful, surreal Vormittagsspuk, getting ready for the day is a precarious act because one is submitting oneself to regulation, well-practiced order. No wonder that the Nazis, once in power, condemned the film and tried to destroy it.
     You know the old joke: Mama will like this, but Dada will like it better. Richter’s film pursues its own logic, setting its capricious poltergeists to rest. At noon, smashed teacups reconstitute and four fellows sit at table to have a lunchtime snack. Each of the free bowler hats finds its rightful place and lands on someone’s head. Things work out, folding into time cosmic elements that seemed to be at war with time. Implicitly, war will once again interrupt the normal order, because that’s what wars do; but this different kind of order, with its fantastical elements, bar the normal interruptions by granting delicious freedom to imagination. Yes, Richter’s film is very, very funny; but it is more than that. It is a plea for peace ten years after “the Great War.” It is a plea for order that derives from the chaos of imagination—an order from inside humanity rather than one imposed on humanity from the outside. It’s a swipe at fascist evil.

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