PRINT April 1972

The Films of Peter Kubelka

PETER KUBELKA IS A MAJOR figure in the contemporary avant-garde film movement—a movement distinguished to a large extent by the casting aside of the traditional narrative form, by the questioning of illusionism in cinema, by a movement towards abstraction, and by a reflexive investigation of the nature of the filmic medium. Kubelka, a Viennese, and the only prominent European in the group, belongs to the especially abstract and Minimalist side of this multifaceted movement.

His experiments in reduction, with an aim towards definition of the medium, are relatable to similar preoccupations of contemporary American painters—with Kubelka most notably sharing an emphasis on the properties of the specific object itself, and with viewer confrontation with that object. His works are more pertinently related to the Viennese School in early 20th-century music (especially Schoenberg and Webern) for both emphasis on serialization and on brief, concentrated forms.

Kubelka’s films represent a major rediscovery and investigation of the basic elements of film: sound, silence, light, absence of light. Kubelka himself is the originator of a major genre within the contemporary avant-garde, the “flicker” film (so called because of the effect created by the rapid alternation of light impulses) that includes works by other artists such as Paul Sharits and Tony Conrad. The films of Peter Kubelka are radical, exuberant works that explore the extreme of the montage esthetic and the problems of the non-narrative film. In addition, they represent the most exhaustive attempt to date to deal with the process of reduction in cinema.

Kubelka is a reflexive film maker concerned, above all, with defining the nature of his medium, and the experience of it. The process of reduction, basic to his entire oeuvre, is a process undertaken in order to both delimit the bare essentials of the medium and to create a filmic experience out of these bare essentials—light, sound, rhythm, and structure. The experience of Kubelka’s films is both a highly sensuous interaction with these elements, purified and intensified as they have never been before, and an intellectual recognition of the nature of these elements. The films, in their radical simplicity and in their density, pose a challenge to our perception, raising questions that can be gradually re-solved only after multiple viewings and, in some cases, by an examination of the filmstrip itself.

Kubelka’s first film was Mosaik im Vertrauen (1954–55; 16 1/2 min.). An embryonic film in many ways, it nonetheless is a sophisticated work which contains some or most of the basic concerns to recur throughout the works: repetitions, emphasis on light and dark contrasts (most evident in the sumptuous Anthology Film Archives’ print), the interchangeability of parts, the importance of the single shot, and the use of a device similar to the freeze frame; that is, a hold, which later erupts into movement. (Shots of a man with a cigar which suddenly “come to life” are one such example.)

The primary process of abstraction in Mosaic involves the disintegration of the narrative form. For while Mosaic suggests a story film, or a film with several stories, the extreme disjunctiveness of the film negates a narrative response. Sequences are never developed or completed; Kubelka jumps from “story” to “story,” eliminating the sequence-to-sequence events normal to the narrative film. He also cuts in various kinds of materials unrelated to the story in any strictly narrative sense (newsreel footage, a pinball game, etc.).

The emphasis in the film, then, is on the shot-to-shot event. Disjunctiveness and discontinuity are keynotes. The relationship of one shot to another and of the shots to the similarly disjunctive and discontinuous sounds is the prime source of excitement of the film. The notion of filmic montage, of the juxtaposition of elements, in this case, based largely on formal (similarities or dissimilarities in movement, rhythm, form, light and dark) relationships, is redefined in this work of striking visual and aural complexities.

Interestingly, the film shares striking formal characteristics and preoccupations with an earlier major avant-garde film, Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Vertov, the giant of an earlier moment in experimental film history, and Kubelka both seem to grapple with the essential qualities of the filmic medium and with a radical esthetic for exploring its potentialities.

Visual statements in Mosaic parallel many of those in Man with a Movie Camera. There is major stress on spatial incongruities similar to those in Vertov—people and machines placed in disproportionate juxtapositions, obviously clashing, disjunctive images presented as if they were sequential and continuous (e.g., a man on the ground looking up and out to something offscreen, followed by a man on a high tower looking down through binoculars, ostensibly to the man in the previous shot). Our knowledge of the place of these two shots earlier in the film tells us that the shots are in no way related. Kubelka explores the height, width, and depth of the screen itself in passages with moving vehicles (cars, trains, streetcars) that traverse across the screen and into and out of the depth of the screen, recalling the somewhat more rigorous exploration of screen dimension in the streetcar sequences of The Man with a Movie Camera.

Like Vertov’s works, Kubelka’s Mosaic is a film that utilizes many “found” materials and sites—a railroad yard, industrial sites, city streets. In exploring these sites, Kubelka often becomes fascinated with revealing details of objects. The most elaborate of these involves a sequence of shots examining a light fixture. The sequence moves from a light bulb, to a man attaching a light, to an underview shot of the lit circle formed by the light, and then moves in closer to a close-up of the arc of the bulb, finally settling’ on an immense close-up of the coils inside the arc. This progression to the light source is a kind of reflexive metaphor that one might apply to all the film from Mosaic through Arnuif Rainer: an investigation which leads to a definition of the medium: cinema is light. The preoccupation with light is seen in many other images in the film: minute lights moving in the black night, massive white sheets against a dark fence, abstracted black forms against the bright, daylight sky.

Mosaic’s soundtrack is highly complex. It is a collage of different textures and tones of sounds—abstracted, nasal, low and high pitch. Sound is used to transform the image, much as it is used in the later work, Our Trip to Africa. In Mosaic a shot of a train slowly turning a bend, forming an arc, is accompanied on the soundtrack by music that reminds the viewer of a music box. Suddenly, the huge industrial icon becomes reduced (figuratively) to a toy train. The soundtrack is at times synchronous, at times disjunctive throughout the film—and here, as in the later works, the sound/image conflict is at the heart of Kubelka’s esthetic.

Finally, there are seven color incidents/inserts in the film involving shots of a radio, a tire, a woman’s face, a sunset, a moonrise, colored lights. These shots present an abrupt shock at first and as such, are predecessors to the sharp contrast between the black and white and the red frames in Schwechater. They also somehow evoke the highly illusory quality of color film. The red radio is a bit garish, the woman’s face is in very soft focus, the sunset is “pretty,” almost like that on a postcard, the lights cool and abstract. Together they indicate the artificiality of color processes, as well as further breaking up the narrative flow.

Adebar (1956–57; 1 1/2 min.), Kubelka’s next film, was originally an ad (rejected) for the Café Adebar. It represents a huge departure from the format of Mosaic and a major step in the development of Kubelka’s work. Adebar eliminates any sense of narrative, and virtually becomes an abstract film, due largely to the silhouette images throughout, the repeated use of a fragment of a tune played over and over, and the visual repetitions and serialization. Shot lengths are shortened radically, forming a kind of transition between the shots of Mosaic and the rapid cutting in Schwechater.

In some ways, Adebar is the most elusive of Kubelka’s films for it seems like a film whose process and structure one should be able to grasp as it is viewed, unlike Schwechater which at a first viewing seems to work subliminally. In Adebar, shots are long enough to determine that there is a process, a pattern, a set of procedures, repetitions of positive and negative images, etc., but not long enough to determine what that process or pattern is.

Adebar is a dance film, an intensely rhythmic dance film complicated by being slightly off metronymic beat. This helps set up some of the sound/image disjunction that preoccupies Kubelka in all of his works.

There are four camera set-ups: close-ups of heads, torso shots, groups of couples dancing, and shots of legs. Each successive shot moves from positive to negative to positive, etc. In addition, the shots are in multiples of 13 frames (13, 26, 52), and each shot is used in six possible ways: the shot shown in movement in its entirety in either positive or negative; the first frame of the shot frozen in either positive or negative; the last frame of the shot frozen in either positive or negative.

Adebar’s images are shadows, the stress is on white and black alternation and on gray and white movement in silhouette. Images of people become almost abstracted, moving and frozen shapes and forms. These forms and movements are repeated although never exactly in the same way, or in successive moments in time. The image is extremely flat, on the surface of the screen, with little or no illusory depth, especially interesting for a dance film.

This particular work raises the question of time in Kubelka’s films, for Adebar, by the almost complete elimination of sequential action and through serialization (repetition of varying patterns), virtually destroys continual time and places all stress on the immediate, on the present.

With Schwechater (1957–58) Kubelka moves more explicitly towards stressing the frame-to-frame event, bringing the Eisensteinian concept of the shot-to-shot collision of elements almost to its fullest point of development. The “shots” in Schwechater are only frames long, and sometimes only a single frame long. Originally intended as a beer commercial rejected by its sponsors, Schwechater contains, in mature form, all of the major Kubelka strategies. The film runs 60 seconds.

Schwechater contains variations of seven basic images: a front view of a lady at a table in a nightclub; a “group portrait” of people in the same club; a side view of a woman at a table; a hand, reaching to pour beer; black leader, clear leader, and a composing, decomposing image, speckled into fragments. Each of the shots is treated in various ways—in full exposure and in half exposure, in positive and negative, in flash frames, and in reversals (left to right).

Schwechater is in black and white with twelve color incidents and moves towards two points of intensification. The twelve color sections are generally much more active (the third red incident, for example, contains fifteen images in two seconds). The blacks (positives) are longer held and less active. This progression moves to the middle of the film (the fifth red incident) where there is a reversal: the red is longer held, and the black that follows is a very active section. The film then returns to its original progression until the extraordinary visual bombardment at the end of the film (the last 128 frames—four seconds before the Schwechater sign appears).

The first intensity point at the middle of the film seems based on color and black and white reversing intensities. The second, at the end of the film, is based around a switch from black leader and long-held shots (8 frames, long for Schwechater!) to both black and red highly intense sections. Except for black leader that runs four to six frames, no image in the last 128 frames is more than two or three frames long, with the exception of the very last images before the Schwechater sign.

Visually the last section is a bombardment, commencing with the eleventh red incident. In this section, all seven of the original images are presented—none for more than two or three frames. The barrage contains the images and all the variations of each, and includes alternations of positive and negative with flash frames, flicker, repetitions, and color changes alternating red/black/red/black/red. Finally, the Schwechater sign runs thirty-two frames.

Sound in Schwechater occurs on the red sections—scratching sounds, electronic bleeps, one in lower, one in higher register. The soundtrack is a further step in abstraction from the use of sound in Adebar, in that it moves from a somewhat articulated melody to the two electronic bleeps.

To aid in perceiving the bombardment, Kubelka introduces the color incidents by tinting the black leader that precedes them with red. This forms a kind of visual “set-up” for the extremely rapid, active red sections that follow. As the film progresses, the red-tinted lead-ins are cut back.

Viewing Schwechater is an exciting visual experience, an experience that demands a kind of viewer confrontation with the filmic object, and a constant bringing to consciousness of the process of perception—to the point of becoming a kind of tantalizing game for the eye. The images—black, white, and red—are all high contrast, clear colors, and the sensuality of the surface is almost overwhelming. The brevity of the shots, seldom more than eight to twelve frames long (one-third to one-half of a second) and frequently much shorter, produces a barrage effect. Our eyes, through their slowness at absorbing images fired at us so quickly, superimpose the images. But there are no superimpositions in the film. Schwechater demands to be seen and re-seen, viewed and re-viewed. In multiple, successive viewings, the single images begin to distinguish themselves, and the “superimpositions” disappear.

In a sense, Schwechater is the most stunning eye-training film ever made, for it is, indeed, a film that trains us to see while it opens our eyes to the nature of film. In challenging the notion of how many frames must be shown for an image to be perceived, Schwechater destroys conventional assumptions concerning filmic perception. It is a masterwork, a work stripped to essentials, complex in structure, dissolving one of the basic notions of the art of cinema: the illusion of the moving image. The constant bombardment by a very few frames of still image insist on the fact that in film we are always seeing still frames—frames which, when combined at the right speed, produce the cinematic illusion of movement.

Through to Rainer, Kubelka is concerned with the gradual reduction of narrative, images, and sound. With Rainer, Kubelka turns to an ultimate reduction and the source of his esthetic: a beam of light filtered through clear and darkened leader. It is in the Rainer film that the collision of the four basic elements of cinema—light, absence of light, sound, and silence are fully explored, bringing the implications of the montage esthetic full circle to its most radical conclusion. In this work, all stress is on the frame-to-frame event. The result is more than collision: it is truly explosive, and Rainer remains a historic visual/aural moment: the liberation of sound and image; the dynamic intensive bombardment of the senses.

The experience of Rainer is the experience of pure light and pure sound, built around strong rhythmic variations and structures which are set up, destroyed, reestablished, converted, etc. The film is built around units of 24 frames, and is divided into 16 sections. Within sections of the film there are variations around and within the basic rhythmic unit, creating arrhythmic patterns. Much of this comes about through interaction with the highly complex soundtrack.

Sound in Rainer is “white sound,” static sound, the sound of all frequencies together, and cut frame by frame. The sound is first set up with close alignment to the visuals, and then soon becomes somewhat contrapuntal. The soundtrack is aurally rich: one so involved and complex in relation to the visual that at times one is not sure if one is seeing or hearing. Certainly the soundtrack reinforces the sense of the visual bombardment, and—like the visual—indicates, when studied separately, overlapping patterns. At various times these patterns correspond to, or are contrapuntal to, the visual.

Jonas Mekas has said that Rainer is a film that can be seen with the eyes closed.1 With eyes wide open, everyone sees, as well as experiences, a different film. This has, in part, to do with the formation of the afterimages and the projection of color retinal images by the viewer onto the screen. These projections include a) swirling color patterns—blue, red, green, violet, and b) the formation of a transparent box that lifts off the screen.

This transparency seems to be suspended somewhere between screen and viewer. It appears in the lower right-hand corner of the screen and needs surrounding blackness to emerge strongly.

The phenomenon depends, in part, on the intensity of the bombardment of black and clear frames that Kubelka sets up at these points. That is, the various afterimages and their intensities are triggered by certain extremely rapid alternations of leader and by an extreme staccato effect in the soundtrack.

Because of the box phenomenon, among other things, the film, as well as being the extreme result of what happens as the frame-to-frame strategy of Kubelka “hits the screen,”2 also seems to address itself to the screen surface, to the space directly in front of the screen, and to the entire space between the screen and the viewer. It thereby sets up an intensely active, highly charged viewing field.

After Rainer, Kubelka turned from a cinema of systematic reduction to a cinema of progressively complex visual and aural combinations—Our Trip To Africa. The Africa film, which I have not been able to study in great detail, is a difficult, major work which poses many of the problems and concerns of the earlier works.

In the film Kubelka reintroduces some of the elements he had been eliminating in his films to this point—people, narrative, emotions, and images that in some way correspond to the natural world (Kubelka has called it a natural film3). All of these elements are reintroduced within the context of a very formal strategy which includes the matching and clashing of sound and image, repetitions, visual perception training, and the stress on the point of articulation: the cut, and its implications on the viewing experience.

Our Trip to Africa is, at first, a surprise after Rainer; initially it seems to be a film that does not follow Kubelka’s reductive evolution from Mosaic through Rainer. The Africa film has images that are somewhat related, and there is even a vague invitation to various social statements implied in the content of the frame, which can de-emphasize the filmic event itself. Gradually, however, its point becomes clear: for while there are images, elements of narrative, emotion, and natural sounds, the film is largely to be experienced on a very formal level, in terms of image-to-image, sound-to-sound, sound-to-image relationships, correspondences, and dissonances. It is the application of all that has gone before.

Our Trip To Africa is a film that demands many viewings, and does become very relatable to the earlier works. Kubelka goes back and starts over, back to the very beginning, but with a much more complex set of problems and variations. Having trained us to follow the process of abstraction, he then asks us to make abstractions from what is conventionally less taken for abstract form. Having viewed, we are to re-view. Having seen, we are to see again, with eyes and senses primed from ongoing contact with sound and image.

Elena Pinto Simon


1. Peter Kubelka, “Interview with Peter Kubelka,” Film Culture Reader, New York, 1970, p. 296.

2. Ibid., p. 291.

3. Ibid., p. 228.