*. Hans Richter was one of the original members of the Dada movement, and this film is usually considered to be a Dada work. But I’m not sure the label fits. Yes, in so far as Dada was about experiment and play. But no, in so far as Dada was against meaning or message. It was a political movement, born of a reaction against the First World War, but it didn’t want to be “read” in a political way.
*. For what it may be worth Vormittagsspuk (Ghosts Before Breakfast) strikes me as more surrealist. Maybe it’s those bowler hats, which seem to have blown in from Magritte’s Brussels. And those hats do have meaning as symbols of bourgeois conformity and respectability. Here they are tossed about, just out of reach, but at the end order will be reasserted, the tea (or breakfast) service will reassemble and the hats float onto their rightful heads.
*. The Nazis banned it as an example of degenerate art. And yet isn’t there a relation of some sort between Dada’s anti-art aesthetic, the violent imagery in this film, and the notorious line from the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst, despising “the rubbish of 1918”: “When I hear ‘culture’. . . I release the safety on my Browning.”
*. It’s that sense of violence that makes me question the Dada label. These aren’t just playful poltergeists. That bow tie has a will of its own and could easily strangle the man. The breakfast service is smashed to pieces. Pistols are drawn, people are shot at, bodies are shattered. To me this does suggest a point beyond the usual early-cinema showcase of magic tricks.
*. But if it isn’t just da-da-da, then what is the message? That civilization is only a thin crust of conventions that are easily upended. That when this happens, you’d better look out (take the safety off your Browning) because things might be about to get ugly. It might all seem like fun and games but then targets turn into bodies and a laugh reveals rotten teeth. Better, in the end, to accept the absurdity of business as usual. Keep your hat on your head and don’t even think of skipping the most important meal of the day.