Watch the Dadaist Masterpiece Ghosts Before Breakfast (1928): Hans Richter’s Film Was So Avant Garde It Was Desecrated by the Nazis

The hats won’t stay on heads. The bowtie won’t be tied. The gun can’t shoot and the tar­get can’t keep still. When objects them­selves rebel, some­thing ter­ri­ble is upon the land, and anar­chism will out. This is one of the take­aways from painter Hans Richter’s 1928 DADA short film Ghosts Before Break­fast, or Vor­mit­tagsspuk in its orig­i­nal Ger­man (lit­er­al­ly “Morn­ing Spook”). And you might take that a very dif­fer­ent way than the audi­ence in 1928. That is fine. This is Dada. It is a bomb thrown into the mind.

But actu­al events and prob­lems sur­round the film and its after­math. By the end of the 1920s Richter was near­ly two decades into his abstract/cubist paint­ing career, and at the begin­ning of the decade he had already been exper­i­ment­ing with the rel­a­tive­ly new medi­um of film. His 1921 Rhyth­mus 21 was one of the first films to attempt to bring abstract ideas–shapes, light, rhythm– to the medi­um. Writ­ing in a Ger­man peri­od­i­cal around 1926, he said “…cin­e­ma can ful­fill cer­tain promis­es made by the ancient arts, in the real­iza­tion of which paint­ing and film become close neigh­bors and work togeth­er.”

Ah, but could music and silent film work togeth­er? In 1927 he was asked by the Ges­sellschaft Fur Neu Musik in Berlin to work with com­pos­er Paul Hin­demith on a piece to screen at their annu­al fes­ti­val. Hin­demith sug­gest­ed some­thing pleas­ant, some­thing set in the coun­try­side. Richter ran out of time and shot some­thing in an impro­vi­sa­tion­al style. But, you know, some­times dead­lines real­ly bring out the best in peo­ple. If the lega­cy of Ghosts Before Break­fast is any indi­ca­tion, it did. It’s con­sid­ered by many to be one of the best Dada films for pure inven­tion and play­ful­ness.

If Ghosts has any nar­ra­tive it’s this: objects con­found their human own­ers, while a clock relent­less­ly counts down the min­utes to noon, a play on the Ger­man phrase “Es ist fünf vor zwölf,” lit­er­al­ly “five min­utes to 12” or “time in run­ning out.” (There’s also a duck).

Richter throws it all in: there’s back­wards film, neg­a­tive film, cut-out and stop-motion ani­ma­tion, in-cam­era spe­cial effects. And as a through­line, one of the sim­plest effects: four, then three, then two ghost­ly bowler hats float­ing in the sky, just out of the reach of their own­ers.

And the artist called in his friends to help: Richter used Bauhaus stu­dent and sculp­tor Wern­er Gra­eff, Hin­demith him­self, com­pos­er Dar­ius Mil­haud and his cousin/wife Madeleine Mil­haud, and film edi­tor Willi Pfer­dekamp to pop­u­late the film.

Ghosts has a trag­ic after­life: the Nazis burned the orig­i­nal film and the score Hin­demith wrote for it. How­ev­er that has left a flow­er­ing of music in its wake, as com­posers have tried to fill the gap: Ian Gar­den­er, Jean Has­se, the band The Real Tues­day Weld, and oth­ers. Steve Roden com­posed four ver­sions for a LACMA ret­ro­spec­tive of Richter’s work, using var­i­ous Dadaist tac­tics, includ­ing record­ing a Hin­demith vinyl he had pre­pared with sand­pa­per.

All scores have resist­ed per­fect syn­chro­niza­tion, how­ev­er. Indeed, in 1947 Richter him­self spoke out against that desire:

We should find a way to let the sound and the pic­ture move on its own in the same direc­tion, but nev­er­the­less, sep­a­rate­ly. This refers to the spo­ken word as well as to the musi­cal and oth­er sounds.

Near­ly 100 years old, Ghosts Before Break­fast is still set­ting the table for us, ready with a strong brew of truth.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Mas­ter­pieces of Abstract Film: Hans Richter’s Rhyth­mus 21 (1921) & Viking Eggeling’s Sym­phonie Diag­o­nale (1924)

Watch Dreams That Mon­ey Can Buy, a Sur­re­al­ist Film by Man Ray, Mar­cel Duchamp, Alexan­der Calder, Fer­nand Léger & Hans Richter

Dada Was Born 100 Years Ago: Cel­e­brate the Avant-Garde Move­ment Launched by Hugo Ball on July 14, 1916

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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