How Austrian and American Film Influenced Each Other to Make Experimental Films That Changed the 20th Century

Bruce Jenkins, professor of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Alexander Horwath, Director of the Vienna Film Museum discuss the Austro-American avant-garde

A ballet dancer in the woods lifts his leg with light-footed grace, making a circle. His body taught with tension, he bends backwards, arms outstretched. When his foot touches the ground again, he’s suddenly inside an apartment – thanks to a match cut by American avant-garde dancer and filmmaker Maya Deren, a contemporary of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage.

Austrian experimental filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky was heavily influenced by New American Cinema.

Taken from A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), the clip kicked off “The Global Significance of American Avant-Garde Film,” a recent panel discussion at the Amerika-Haus between Bruce Jenkins, professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Alexander Horwath, director of the Austrian Film Museum, and Mark Toscano, curator and preservationist. Shot in the mid-1940s, it preceded the Austrian avant-Garde by roughly ten years. Yet, it was with Austrian help that the American scene could develop.

Jenkins talked with great passion about the late Amos Vogel, co-founder of the New York Film Festival and an important champion of cinema as an art form. Born in Vienna, he fled from the Nazis to the United States in 1938; impressed by Maya Deren’s work after watching a screening in New York, he eventually connected with her to establish the highly influential film society Cinema 16 in 1947. Dedicated to non-commercial art, “he was a gift to the American film scene,” Jenkins maintained. As an early promoter of directors like Roman Polanski, John Cassavetes, Jacques Rivette and Kenneth Anger, Vogel gave the budding cinematic avant-garde a home, encouraging many young filmmakers to come.

Another name significant to the Austro-American connection is Peter Kubelka, the multi-talented Viennese architect, musician and filmmaker. “He made powerful, simple films, arranging his shots according to mathematical principles,” Horwath reminisced. Kubelka spoke and taught at various U.S. schools and even invited representatives of the New American Cinema to the Austrian Film Museum, where they would pass their insights to the next generation long before their influence reached other European countries.

One of those eager students was Austrian film artist and guest speaker Peter Tscherkassky: “My first contact with avant-garde film was in the 1970s in a film history class. I fell in love.” He met film historian P. Adams Sitney during one of the screenings at the Film Museum. Seeing American experimental films was proof positive to Tscherkassky that there were many creative (and affordable) ways to shoot movies.

“Avant-garde film developed during a time when Austria didn’t have a regular film industry,” Horwath concluded. Experimental films filled that gap, adding another chapter to Austria’s contributions to film alongside prominent Hollywood transplants like Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fred Zinnemann or Fritz Lang.

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