On Viewing Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21

I’d never really thought much about Avant-Garde cinema – I guess it didn’t particularly appeal to me, and I never felt any special desire or calling to study it or seek it out. Oh, I saw the standards they show in the introductory film classes, like Un Chien Andalou, which can’t help but be fascinating, and other classics of the early years such as Ballet Mécanique and Berlin, eine Symphonie der Großstadt. But they never made me feel anything; they were simply there, strings of images, assuredly attached together with some meaning, some relevance which lay unfortunately beyond my ken. Perhaps therein lies the truth behind my lack of interest; the fear that perhaps I simply didn’t – or possibly couldn’t – understand. The musical, the rhythmical, which are so often central, I uncovered with ease, but the cinematic remained out of reach. And why music, why rhythm? Simply to create an experience? What was the purpose for which these works were made? What were the questions to which these films were an answer?

And so it is with some trepidation that I am introduced to Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21. I learn a little about art, a little about Richter and his connection to Eggling; I learn that despite the title the film was not made until 1926. Is this significant, perhaps a clue? I am asked to watch. I comply. I see boxes. Not even real boxes; something more like cardboard cut-outs which resemble on screen the wooden blocks I used to play with as a child. Even to my amateur eyes it appears crude; not primitive, but simplistic. Shapes simply move across the screen – left and right, screen forward and screen back. I am reminded of Meliès who so long ago created the impression of camera movement by moving his moon closer to the camera. Why do it here? I search mentally, desperately, through every narrative analogy I know. Perhaps that is my mistake, for still it lacks significance, still it means nothing.

The movements are mechanical; most of the shapes square or rectangular. I think of the machine in Germany in the twenties; I think of Metropolis. I think of modernity and industrialization, but there is no image of the machine such as we see in Ballet Mécanique, no pistons pumping or metal grinding, detached from the guidance of human hands. A greater abstraction? For the human is missing here as well. And the movement is non-productive, too; makes no pretense of utility; portrays only useless linear shapes on a dulled screen. But the pattern is perhaps not entirely linear. There is a third dimension; it exists coming toward and moving away from the onlooker. In this way it almost seems to become a part of the viewer, an extension, perhaps, of the viewing eye or body…

And then I do have a vision, a perception; I see something in it to which I have been blind. There is a meaning – and it may not be the “right” one, but that hardly matters, because it’s mine. I have given it to the film; have endowed it with life, for me, and perhaps for me alone, but at least I have not walked away with nothing. In the last segment of the film, the screen is occupied by two blocks: one small, the other larger, both rectangular. They move in alternation, forward and back, so that they seem to grow and shrink, in a peculiar rhythm, to a beat which I recognize, for it moves within me as well, within all of us. It is the beating of the human heart. And perhaps it was the progression, the slow coming to life of LIFE in those mechanical wooden squares, that constituted the Rhythmus of 21. And perhaps the question the film sought to answer was how to find that heartbeat residing within the abstracted concrete forms of modern life.

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