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by Peter Kubelka

grade: 9

Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer is one of the few metric films in film history. In just under seven minutes, we see the screen now white, now black, while, in the meantime, silence and white noise expertly alternate. Meanwhile, what we see and perceive is something unique.

Pure cinema

A fundamental film in Austrian and world cinema history, Arnulf Rainer. Considered probably the most famous film of director Peter Kubelka, we find here a true return to the pure essence of cinema itself. After a screening that may at first seem difficult, in fact, we notice how every single frame has been studied by Kubelka in detail and edited through equally meticulous work on sounds.

Arnulf Rainer, therefore, was initially commissioned from Peter Kubelka by his friend, the photographer and painter Arnulf Rainer. The latter thought that Kubelka intended to make a documentary about his work and career, and when, in 1960, the film was finally ready, he was somewhat bewildered. What was presented to him was something totally unexpected. Partly to “make up” for this excessive creative freedom, therefore, Peter Kubelka decided to name this film of his after his friend. But, in fact, what does Arnulf Rainer consist of?

This work is one of the few metric films in film history, just like the films Adebar (1957) and Schwechater (1958), previously made by the director. In a little less than seven minutes, we see the screen now white, now black, while, in the meantime, silence and white noise are skilfully alternated. The film is, therefore, subdivided into sixteen sections, each of which runs for exactly twenty-four seconds (and in which, therefore, 576 frames are included). Each section is in turn divided into “sentences”, some of which may comprise 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 12, 16, 18, 24, 36, 48, 72, 96, 144, 192 or even 288 frames. Meanwhile, what we see on screen is something unique.

Black and white alternate continuously, similarly to silence and white noise. After brief moments of waiting in which the screen remains either all white or all black, the black and white begin to alternate more and more frantically, creating a magnetic flicker. What will happen in a few seconds? What can the viewer expect? Suspense and action are constantly alternating while watching Arnulf Rainer, which is in turn a true visual and auditory experience.

Yes, because, in fact, Peter Kubelka – who has always wanted to shoot his films strictly on film – has often screened many of his works also as part of exhibitions and installations, “hanging” his films on the walls, almost as if they were real paintings. Obviously, the screening must take place in total darkness, as Kubelka himself always tried to do by creating the so-called Invisible Cinema in the Anthology Film Archives in New York (a movie theatre in which even the walls, seats and partitions are totally black, in order to offer the viewer the best experience possible).

Returning to Arnulf Rainer, then, we see how the fundamental elements that allow the very existence of the cinematic show – white, black, noise, silence – are the absolute protagonists. Arnulf Rainer – in whom, in this sense, metrics play an essential role – represents one of the many variations of the cinematic spectacle devoid of any “embellishment” or production necessity. The true essence of cinema, which Peter Kubelka, throughout his long and prolific career, has always constantly pursued. In 2012 the director made Antiphon, the exact opposite of Arnulf Rainer (when in the first film the screen is black, in the second it is white; when in the first film there is silence, in the second there is white noise, and so on). In the same year, both films were brought together in the film Monumental Film, in which they are first shown to us separately, then alternating and then even superimposed. But that is another story. Or is it, perhaps, just another chapter of the same story?

Original title: Arnulf Rainer
Directed by: Peter Kubelka
Country/year: Austria / 1960
Running time: 7’
Genre: experimental
Screenplay: Peter Kubelka
Cinematography: Peter Kubelka
Produced by: Peter Kubelka, Arnulf Rainer

Info: the page of Arnulf Rainer on iMDb; the page of Arnulf Rainer on the website of the sixpackfilm