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Surrealist Film Collage

Surrealist Film - History and Concepts

Started: 1928

Ended: 1950

Surrealist Film Timeline


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Magic Realism
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Dada and Surrealist Photography


Man RayMan Ray
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Germaine DulacGermaine Dulac
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Antonin ArtaudAntonin Artaud
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Luis BunuelLuis Bunuel
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Salvador DalíSalvador Dalí
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Jean CocteauJean Cocteau
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Agents Provocateurs: Ringleaders of the Surrealist CircusAgents Provocateurs: Ringleaders of the Surrealist Circus

Beginnings of Surrealist Film

The Start of Surrealism

The first expressions of Surrealism took place in the early 1920s not in painting or cinema but in the poetry of André Breton, Paul Eluard, Philip Soupault, and Louis Aragon, all of whom explored automatic writing (writing in an almost hypnotic state, without the filtering of traditional poetic forms, morality, or rational meaning).The first to use the term "surrealist" was actually the older innovative poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, as a subtitle to his scandalous 1917 play, The Breasts of Tiresias. Apollinaire, who had been a major figure in the Cubist movement and had perished in World War I, was much admired by the younger poets, and so they named their movement "Surrealism" in his honor. Interestingly, one of Apollinaire's last projects was the screenplay for a movie, which was never produced, titled The Breton Girl (1917).

In their poems, the Surrealists sought the secret links between disparate objects and realities, the "conducting wire" between the subconscious and conscious life of humanity. Desire and love - even insane love, amour fou - were, like dreams, among the keys to unlocking the true mysteries of life itself. Poetry would liberate language from meaning, common sense, and traditional images - "No word will ever again be subordinated to matter," wrote Paul Eluard. Some years later, Antonin Artaud, who wrote the screenplay for what many consider the first authentic Surrealist film, The Seashell and The Clergyman (1928), would seek the liberation of images from language: "We must find a film with purely visual sensations ..."

Pre-Surrealist Cinema: Early Films That Inspired the Surrealists

The founders of Surrealism were passionate movie-goers. Their favorite films were adventure serials, such as Fantomas (1920), the tale of a ruthless thief, a master of disguise, and a sadistic killer. They also loved the adventures of Judex (1916), a shadowy crime-fighter whose headquarters were in the lower depths of a castle, equipped with the most modern crime-fighting technology. Breton's personal favorites included F.W. Murnau's erotic vampire classic, Nosferatu (1922), and the films of the actress known as Musidora, whom the Surrealists considered "indeed the modern woman."

Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) included a proto-Surrealist character named Cesare, a young man who lives in a state of permanent hypnosis - a state idealized by the Surrealist poets as liberating and revelatory. Wiene's movie ends in an insane asylum, where it is revealed that the entire story has been the imaginings of a lunatic patient. In the first Surrealist manifesto, Breton praised the insane for "their profound indifference to the way in which we judge them, and even to the various punishments meted out to them."

The early Surrealists, and indeed, future Surrealist film-makers such as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, also loved American screwball comedies such as the Max Sennett's Keystone Cops, the films of Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, and above all, Buster Keaton. It is not difficult to see why: these comedies embody the energy and chaos of modern life but are sympathetic to the plights of their luckless, hapless, lower-class heroes, who are inevitably caught in a confusing and dehumanizing world of new expectations and relentless mechanization. In the majority of these films, authority figures, especially the police, are ridiculed. The Surrealists lauded the absurd plots and situations in these movies, such as Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock dial several stories above the bustling city. But in many of the films of Buster Keaton, the absurdity is raised a notch. Everyday objects are transformed in "surreal" ways - a cigar becomes a nail; a banana a gun; a two dimensional coat-hook painted on a wall actually serves to hold a real hat; a mannequin becomes an unemployed worker in a bread line; a clay horse melts and is dismembered. In Keaton's 1920 film, One Week, a portable house becomes an askew, Cubist-like structure into which Keaton attempts to pull a piano with a rope, destroying the floor. One cannot help but think of the scene in Un Chien Andalou, nine years later, in which the male figure pulls two grand pianos with a rope into the apartment, destroying walls and floorboards. In the 1921 feature, The High Sign, the Keaton character is described as the ultimate outsider, "who came from Nowhere - he wasn't going Anywhere, and got kicked off Somewhere."

The Rise of Experimental Film

The horror, crime, and comedy films were part of the popular culture of the 1920s, but these years also saw the emergence of experimental cinema, particularly in Germany and France. In 1921, Hans Richter created the first abstract film, Rhythmus 21, followed in 1924 by Viking Eggeling's Diagonal Symphony. 1924 was also the year of Entr'acte, directed by Rene Clair, and starring some of the pivotal artists of the Dada and proto-Surrealist movements, such as Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray. Because of its absurd episodes, Entr'acte is often mistaken for a Surrealist film, but its whimsical nature makes it far more akin to Dadaism, without Surrealist cinema's underlying sense of desire, shock, and oneiric passivity. The same can be said of two other important experimental films: Fernand Leger's Ballet Mechanique (1924) and Marcel Duchamp's seven-minute Anemic Cinema (1926) ["Anemic" almost "Cinema" spelled backwards], although the latter has some affinities with Surrealism, with its roto-reliefs, like the spiraling discs of a hypnotist, that mesmerize the viewer, along with spinning phrases full of French puns and alliterations that sound, in their absurdity, like automatic poetry: " Baths of vulgar tea for beauty marks without too much Bengay."

The American photographer Man Ray, working in Paris in the 1920s, also experimented with film with Return to Reason (1923) and Emak-Bakia (Give Peace) (1926) His film L'Etoile de Mer (The Starfish) (1928), based on a poem by the Surrealist Robert Desnos, creates a true Surrealist oneiric-erotic simulacrum.

Surrealist Film: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

In his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton, the movement's founder, defined Surrealism as "pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation." He added: "Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream..." By this definition, true Surrealist films are those that create a simulacrum of dreams, of oneiric automatism, that replicate the very mechanics of dreams, in which the dreamer has no will and in which images and actions are freed from logical filtering, traditional functions, linear sequences, and from stylized, aesthetic beauty. Rational reality gives way to the "superior" reality of dreams and uncensored desire. Surrealist films, like Surrealist paintings and Surrealist poetry, explore juxtapositions of discordant images that would not, in "normal" reality, ever interact or be associated, such as a cloud and a razor, a piano and the rotting carcass of a donkey, Jesus Christ and sexual sadism.

The Building Blocks of Surrealist Film

Surrealist films share fundamental traits: first, an interest in, and replication of, the dream/nightmare state with characters who are often acting free of moral or logical restraints, or who display the passivity and impotence that humans experience in actual dreams; second, a dislocation of logical narrative sequence or plot; third, a transformation of the daily world into one in which normal objects are made alien, strange, and displaced from their traditional functions and environments or put in association with other, incongruous phenomena. Added to this is an interest in shocking imagery that awakens intense physical/optical horror, jolting the viewer out of passivity.

Surrealist Film on Politics and Social Constructs

While many Surrealist films seem to unfold in a world far from the realities of politics or societal issues, some Surrealist movies attack, disparage, or mock societal values and institutions (e.g. religion, family), particularly the films of Buñuel. Many Surrealists, including Breton, had earlier on been associated with the Dadaist movement. Dadaism had also attacked society relentlessly, especially concepts such as religion, patriotism, and capitalism. Dadaists were deeply embittered by World War I, and used mockery and absurdity to ridicule the established order but in the process also lost faith in the redeeming quality of art itself, creating "anti-art" and "anti-poetry." Surrealism inherited aspects of Dada's social criticism, but it rejected Dadaism's nihilism. Surrealists believed in the power of romantic love, in the enduring relevance of poetry and art, in salvation - personal and societal - through liberation of the subconscious. While Dadaist films extoll a kind of whimsical chaos, Surrealist films tend to eschew any but the darkest humor, and explore more dangerous zones of the human psyche. When they attack society, they do so through dislocation of society's symbols, making them look absurd or even horrifying, such as the Crucifix in Buñuel's L'Age d'Or to which female scalps have been nailed. Surrealism attacks through distortion and incongruity and the debasing of symbols.

Surrealist Films on Beauty and Aesthetics

The Surrealists viewed traditional concepts of beauty with the same contempt they felt for traditional morality. According to Breton, Surrealist practice in all the arts must take place "outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation." Surrealism did not wish to be merely another movement in the arts like Impressionists, Cubism, or Symbolism; it sought social transformation as well, which is why it took active roles in left-wing politics and in psychoanalytic research. Yet despite Breton's rejection of formal aesthetic beauty, a certain stylized, lyrical, aesthetic look or feeling infuses many Surrealist films, from Man Ray's works of the 1920s, with their graceful sculptural objects and reflective surfaces, to the Neoclassical elements in The Blood of a Poet (1930), or the sartorial perfection of Last Year at Marienbad (1961). In the 1940s, Surrealism's influence reached the world of high fashion, to Breton's horror, with designers like Elsa Schiapirelli collaborating with Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau on strange but exquisite clothing for the wealthy. Man Ray himself was a successful fashion photographer for Vogue magazine. On the other hand, films such as Un Chien Andalou (1929), L'Age d'Or (1930), and David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977) express their goals in uncompromising, aggressively unaesthetic images and scenes.

Surrealist Films on Myth and Storytelling

Myth is as important to Surrealism as it was to Freud and Jung. Myths after all are part of the collective unconscious, which individuals re-enact in the compulsions of their lives. The ultimate handbook of myths in Western civilization is Ovid's poem The Metamorphoses (8 AD). The majority of these myths show the ability of the gods to transform themselves and the world around them - a man becomes a swan, a woman a laurel tree, an egotist a flower. Surrealists were fascinated by this power of transformation, which shows the fluid and magical nature of reality. When Surrealists used ancient myths, they attempted to revive them in contemporary settings and emphasize the transformative or magical in the stories, such as in the story of Narcissus or Orpheus, yet, at the same time, these mythical stories are liberated from their linear narratives, while preserving the fantastic elements. Beginning with Jean Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1930), Surrealist films often allude to the Orphic myth. We find this in such films such as Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Orpheus (1950), Last Year at Mariendbad (1961), and even the American low-budget horror flick, Carnival of Souls (1962). American filmmaker Willard Maas created his extraordinary Narcissus in 1956, mixing the surreal aspects of the myth with contemporary scenes from New York's bohemian and gay underground.

Later Developments - After Surrealist Film

In the United States, the Surrealist movement was given an extended life during World War II. André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Max Ernst, and many other European Surrealists found refuge in New York City. Charles Henri Ford, the truest Surrealist poet in American literature, introduced American readers to Surrealism through his lavish journal View, which ran from 1940 to 1947. Ford acted as a link between his generation and the 1960s Pop world, inspiring Andy Warhol to experiment with filmmaking; Ford produced his own surrealistic film Johnny Minotaur (1971). During the 1940s, even mainstream cinema absorbed aspects of surrealism, such as Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), featuring sets by Salvador Dalí, or Otto Preminger's Laura (1944), in which a detective (Dana Andrews) experiences amour fou for a woman he thinks is dead; the second half of the movie is possibly nothing more than the detective's dream.

American Abstract Expressionist painters of the late 1940s and early 1950s were profoundly affected by Surrealism, as were the young writers of the Beat movement and the scores of young filmmakers in the wake of Maya Deren, such as Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Willaard Maas, and Jonas Mekas. In Europe, the official Surrealist movement had more or less petered out by the 1960s, though its influence on film persisted, as can be seen in Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962). Some original Surrealist filmmakers, most notably Luis Buñuel, continued making films into the 1970s, all of which preserve elements of his Surrealist heritage, such as disjointed plots, unusual eroticism, attacks on religion, and amour fou. Additionally, Surrealist imagery was revived with great power by David Lynch in Eraserhead (1977).

Most Important Art

Surrealist Film Famous Art

The Seashell and The Clergyman (1928)

Artist: Germaine Dulac
Directed by Germaine Dulac from a screenplay by Antonin Artaud, The Seashell and the Clergyman is considered by most critics to be the first true Surrealist film. Dulac was already a successful and innovative filmmaker, best known for the way in which her early films set moods through atmospheric camera shots, reminiscent of French Impressionist paintings. Many of her films are also psychological portraits, such as Spanish Fiesta (1920) and The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923). The Seashell and The Clergyman was a major departure from her established style. Dulac was a persuasive writer on cinema theory and declared the independence of film from literature and other visual arts.

Antonin Artaud was an actor, poet, and dramatist, and one of the most important figures in modern theater. As an actor, he is perhaps best remembered for his role as a sympathetic priest in Carl Dreyer's classic film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). In 1927-28, Artaud was still affiliated with the official Surrealist movement as Director of the "Bureau of Surrealist Research," a small office in Paris where the general public could submit accounts of their dreams and surreal experiences. Artaud would later be expelled from the Surrealist movement by Breton, who objected to Artaud's drug-use, which to Breton was an inauthentic way of attaining the oneiric or revelatory state.

The film recreates the nightmare of a young clergyman and his repressed sexual desire for a beautiful, aristocratic woman (played by Genica Athanasiou, a former lover of Artaud's). The clergyman is thwarted by an older, more powerful man, who appears in the dream at times as his superior in the priesthood, or as a sword-bearing general. The clergyman tries to destroy this imperious father-figure, but his attempts are futile, and the slow-motion scenes of the clergyman trying impotently to strangle him are among the most disturbing in the film. The clergyman's impotence is also embodied in his crawling, like an infant, along the streets of the city, as well as in his absurd repetitive act of filling test-tubes with blood from a seashell (a symbol of female sexuality) and then dropping the tubes to the floor, creating a pile of smashed glass. The clergyman's erotic frustration is contrasted with the joy of dancing couples, kissing as they spin in a dizzying rhythm.

When the film appeared, Artaud accused Dulac of butchering his screenplay, and, along with his fellow-Surrealists, possibly staged a riot at the film's premiere at the Ursulines Theater on February 9, 1928. And yet, Dulac did follow Artaud's screenplay very closely. What Artaud might have objected to in the film is a certain "psychologizing" in the close-up shots and in the gestures of the characters, creating interpretable, "linguistic" meaning, attempts at coherence, whereas Artaud had hoped for images free from any possible interpretation, a true recreation of the mechanics of dreams in which "psychology itself is devoured by the acts." Nevertheless, Dulac herself advertised the film as "Not a dream, but the world of images itself taking the mind where it would never have agreed to go, the mechanism is within everyone's reach."

The pioneering film was a crucial influence on future Surrealist films. The techniques that Dulac developed for his film - superimpositions, montage, displacement shots, hallucinatory, spectral imagery - would be found in later, better-known Surrealist films such as Un Chien Andalou and Blood of a Poet. While Artaud feared that Dulac's film had created an easily interpretable dream narrative, the British Board of Film Censors deemed the movie "so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable."
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