Avant-garde cinema: movements, films and protagonists

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The European cinematic avant-gardes of the 1920s

In the 1920s a vast panorama of experimentation of European cinema was born by artists from other artistic disciplines such as Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism, who made important contributions to the development of the nascent cinematographic art: avant-garde cinema.

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Avant-garde cinema: Futurism

Avant-garde cinema
Anton Giulio Bragaglia

Italian futurism was among the most enthusiastic, going so far as to affirm that the very soul of cinema was futurist: rhythm and abstract forms were to be the protagonists of the new works, leaving the story behind. However, the Futurists made few films and most of them were lost: the Thaïs or Perfidious intrigue (1917) by Anton Giulio Bragaglia are the only surviving futurist films. Their thoughtless ideas served to lay the foundations for subsequent artistic movements.

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Avant-garde cinema: Abstractionism

Avant-garde cinema
Vassilij Kandinsky

Abstractionism used avant-garde cinema in an even more extreme way, preferring abstract forms and pure movement. Its founder was the Russian painter Vassilij Kandinsky. Abstract cinema  was born in Germany in the same years as expressionism and kammerspiel. The directors created films out of all likelihood of reality, with geometric and abstract shapes that danced rhythmically on the screen. Rhytmus 21 (1921) by Hans Richter was the first.

Movement, time, rhythm and light of this film bring us the research of the German director to the primordial essence of cinema, to its purest and non-industrial form. They were followed by Rythmus 23 (1923), Rythmus 25 (1925). Meanwhile the Swedish Viking Eggeling entered into competition with his German colleague and created Diagonal Symphony , another fundamental work of abstract cinema.

Another abstract avant-garde cinema artist was Walter Ruttmann  with the works Lichtspiel Opus I , Lichtspiel Opus II , Ruttmann Opus III ,  Ruttmann Opus IV , film of lights in motion. He will later abandon abstract cinema to make documentaries, such as Berlin – Symphony for a big city (1926) or Melody of the World (1929), inspired by the films of Dziga Vertov.

Halfway between abstract cinema and Dadaism is the work of  Marcel Duchamp  Anémic Cinéma  (1926): 19 rotating optical discs, 10 composed of geometric figures and nine decorated with meaningless phrases. Duchamp called them rotorilievi.

To help him make this film was the painter and photographer Man Ray who he had created a few years earlier Retour à la raison with the technique of rayography invented by himself: he exposed objects in contact with photographic paper or film to create images without using the camera.


he Cubist movement also immediately became interested in avant-garde cinema. The painter Fernand Léger shot the film in 1924 Ballet mécanique . No plot or story, rhythms of bodies and objects in motion, interested only in rhythm. Cinema moved away from reality and concrete stories. The meaning of these films is in the rhythmic dance of images, sounds and light through the montage.


Avant-garde cinema
René Clair

In France there was instead the Dadaist movement of Tristan Tzara, with a much more radical and subversive aesthetic and ideas. In Dadaism there was anarchy, nihilism, the search for freedom of expression and the rejection of any meaning or final purpose. Dadaism gave us some masterpieces that aroused attention in the artistic world of the time, including the film by René Clair Entr’acte (1924), a film-interval between two times of a live dance show. Here too we find the rejection of any story, the attempt to stay at the roots of the cinematographic art: the viewer is simply led into the joy of life and of the gaze.

Avant-garde cinema: Surrealism

The absolute lack of rules and rejection of conventions, however, led Dadaism to crisis and the movement broke up in 1923. Surrealism was born from its ashes, which found in cinema one of its most powerful means of expression. Andrè Breton , founder of the movement, and all his colleagues were interested in the dream world, in everything that manifests itself in the unconscious and outside the ordinary meanings of the world, in the automatic associations of ideas that occur beyond consciousness, in what happens after the loss of any rationality or thought control.

Luis Buñuel

Spanish director Luis Buñuel and painter Salvador Dalì created together in 1928 Un Chien andalou , a film destined to mark a turning point in the history of cinema. A dreamlike and psychoanalytic journey into the most incomprehensible meanders of the human psyche that can have multiple readings and meanings. Surrealism, unlike other previous art movements, creates a new and personal language rather than destroying previous models. Nihilism and anarchy leave room for more traditional narrative codes but used for different purposes. Not to reassure and lead the viewer to a specific destination but to make him lose any reassuring point of reference.

In 1930 Buñuel and Dalì will give life to a new film getting even closer to the classic narration of a story: L’âge d’or . The Spanish director lays the foundations and the first experiments of what will become his obsession throughout his career: the attack on bourgeois institutions such as the church, the army and the state.

Other surrealism films are La Coquille et le Clergyman  (1928), the first film by Jean Cocteau (1930), L’Atalante by Jean Vigo, who died in the same year, aged only 29 . His death marked the end of surrealist cinema. The mix of avant-garde style and acceptance of the rules to subvert them or use them in opposite directions made surrealist cinema the most successful and interesting experiment of all the avant-gardes. With a huge influence that lasts until today.

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