Over the first half of the 20th century, the world witnessed two wars that profoundly influenced the life of the whole generation and brought much misery and pain. During the harsh times, the art also overcome through major transformations. Rapid changes on socio-political agenda drove artists of the time to create underground works of art that differed from prevailing mainstream preferences and launched the era of brave artistic concepts and innovative directions. Surrealism was one of the period’s inventions that came to the forefront of the art world tracing back to the Dada movement that marked a rebellion against art and middle-class complacency with societal restrictions subconsciously imposed on people. Therefore, this movement in a way was the artistic break to freedom through visual representations, with influences from previous eras that preceded it, but developed on them, drawing inspiration from dreams and human subconscious thoughts with the addition of instances of the real world. The surrealist period began in the form of a literary group that because of the collapse of Dada in Paris, emerged with Andre Breton having a significant role in his eagerness to bring about a sense of purpose and meaning to Dada but also brought in the influence of Tristan Tzara’s anti authoritarianism.
One of the prominent projects that backed up the development and expansion of the Surrealism movement at the dawn of the 20th century was the invention of Surrealist cinema in Paris in the 1920s. This modernist approach much influenced and shaped film theory, as well as the art of filmmaking. As the Surrealism itself, the Surrealist cinema bore close relation to the so-called ‘Dada cinema’ featured by juxtapositions. The trend predominantly grounded on shocking imagery and denied dramatic psychology. The Seashell and the Clergyman was the pioneer Surrealist film directed in 1928 by Germaine Dulac. Inspired by original success, other surrealists (Houdini, Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel among others) followed suit.

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Just as surrealist works in other major directions, Surrealist cinema lacks definite style and form. Such interpretation turns surrealism into a practice of exploring the conjunctions between all possible realms of existence rather than conjuring a magic (surreal) world. The surrealist cinema proves the lack of fixed aesthetic in the trend. In other words, surrealism is always a shifting point magnifying extraordinary creativity. The style permanently manipulates with subconscious mind and relies on irrational imagery. With rebellion (revolutionary) appeal at the core, surrealists, nevertheless, are not deprived of logical thinking.

The trend has been among the first ones closely associated with cinema. At that, most cinema critics largely neglected the movement. The beginnings of Surrealism coincide with the launch of motion pictures, while watching films was part of daily life of most Surrealists. The Founding Father of the movement, Andre Breton was keen on watching and making films. His movie-crawling experiences filled him with a flow of disordered images he further juxtaposed in various possible combinations and experimental interpretations. The main thing that attracted Breton in Surrealist cinema was its capacity to disorient viewers and therefore helped them revive by abstracting from harsh reality they lived in. Early Surrealists mostly admired the serials than hinted on the so-called “other worldliness”, a realm that considerably differed from the daily routines. In addition, Surrealists appreciated the ability of the genre to evoke mystery and sustain suspense. Over time, Surrealist cinema turned into an independent medium that totally eliminated the boundaries of reality. Such de-realization of the world equipped the surrealists with unlimited potential to apply technical resources, alchemical tools and photo-magic effects to change the reality at their discretion (Matthews, 1971).

Not surprisingly, Surrealists fully benefited from cinema as a powerful medium that enabled their self-expression and never restricted the stream of their fantasies and creativity. During the 1920s many Surrealists tended to portray ridiculous they treated as rational. At that, cinema served as proper medium providing persuasive illusions by contrast to the theater. Furthermore, Surrealists well-adapted filmmaking techniques to express their creativity through film and bring Surrealist cinema as close as possible to the goals and requirements of Surrealism. Surrealists juxtaposed the imaginary images of films with their dreams and the realms of their unconscious mind. At that, they achieved imitation of the dream through films. At that, surrealist filmmakers intended to re-shift human awareness of reality though illustrating the ‘real’ as nothing more than one’s perception of what is actually ‘real’. This was a powerful call to the then society to free oneself from the limits and restrictions imposed by social conventions (Richardson, 2006).

The important issue in due context concerns the question of whether the Surrealist cinema have established into an individual genre. Critics claimed that the most of what Surrealists applied was irrational and therefore their filmmaking patterns could not constitute an independent genre. While many films fully coincide with the conventions of Surrealism, most, however, only contain separate fragments typical of the genre. Therefore, most critics substitute the term Surrealist cinema with the broader interpretation of Surrealism in film.

Overall, Surrealist cinema has proven as a powerful project throughout almost a century. Ordinary viewers tend to refer to any extraordinary imagery they spot in films as surrealist. The Surrealist cinema project has still survived over the decades and much popularized and promoted Surrealism among broader audiences that hold no relation to the genre. This means, that to a great extent, Surrealism owes its survival and expansion to the cinema as a powerful popular medium (King, 2007).

  • King, E. (2007). Dali, Surrealism and Cinema, Harpenden, Herts.: Kamera Books.
  • Matthews, J. (1971). Surrealism and Film, University of Michigan Press.
  • Richardson, M. (2006). Surrealism and Cinema, New York: Berg.