A vague sense of disquiet settled over Europe in the period between WWI and WWII. As the slow burn of militant ultranationalism mingled with jingoist populism, authoritarian leaders and fascist factions found mounting support among a citizenry hungry for certainty. Europe’s growing trepidation fostered some of the 20th century’s most striking painterly, literary, and cinematic depictions of the totalitarianism that would soon follow. It was almost inevitable that this period would see the birth of the first deeply philosophical animated film, known as The Idea.
The Idea first emerged as a wordless novel in 1920, drawn by Frans Masereel. Masereel, a close friend of Dadaist and New Objectivist artist George Grosz, had created a stark, black-and-white story about the indomitable nature of ideas. Employing thick, aggressive lines obtained through woodcut printing, Masereel depicted a conservative political order’s fight against the birth of a new idea, which eventually flourished in spite of the establishment’s relentless attempts to suppress it.
Setting to work in 1930, a Czech film-maker named Berthold Bartosch spent two years animating The Idea. Bartosch’s visual style remained true to Masereel’s harsh, vivid lines. His version of the story, however, took a decidedly bleaker turn—one that was more reminiscent of the writings of his compatriot, Franz Kafka. Whereas Masereel believed that the purity of good ideas would overwhelm their opposition, Bartosch, working a decade closer to the Nazis’ ascendancy, was wary of such idealism.
Above, you can watch what film historian William Moritz has called “the first animated film created as an artwork with serious, even tragic, social and philosophical themes.” Paired with a haunting score composed by Arthur Honegger, the 25-minute feature is a powerfully moving meditation on art, struggle, purity of thought, and populist savagery that remains untarnished after eight decades. It will be added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..
Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.