Alexandr Hackenschmied’s city symphonies deliberately challenge the promotional attitude represented by Svatopluk Innemann in Prague at Night (1928). By turning against the dominant trends of the era and instead of glorifying the mechanized dynamism of modernity they leisurely appreciate the architectural achievements of the past and capture the beauties of nature sneaking into the metropolis.
Alexandr Hackenschmied and Alexander Siegfried Georg Smahel – Even in avant-garde film circles both of these names, representing the same person, are unfamiliar in spite of the fact that they stand for an internationally acclaimed figure of the underground film scene. Born in Linz, starting his film carrier in Czechoslovakia Hackenschmied anglicized his name after moving to the United States and earned his fame as Alexander Hammid. His most well-known works were created with his first wife Maya Deren. They are considered milestones in underground film history, like The Private Life of a Cat (1944), At Land (1944), and Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), which is frequently referred to as an archetype of trance film. The first two movies of Hackenschmied: Aimless Walk (Bezúčelná procházka, 1930) and The Prague Castle (Na pražském hrade, 1932) are lesser known pieces both filmed in Prague, with the city as subject from an unconventional perspective.
These early pieces of Hackenschmied are different from all the noted city-symphonies of the twenties and thirties. While the iconic movies made by Walter Ruttmann (Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, 1927), Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand (Manhatta, 1921) and Alberto Cavalcanti (Nothing But Time, 1926) present several aspects of the chosen metropolis and show definite social-political engagement (especially Cavalcanti’s film), Hackenschmied’s movies cover smaller segments and at first sight they work rather as diary entries or architectural anecdotes. Of course it does not mean that the content of the film is directly proportional to the size of the discovered city areas. In fact Hackenschmied’s personal visual-confessions stand proudly among the films of the listed masters, even if it is about structure, association of ideas or formal experimentation.
With a borrowed Kinamo hand camera and using the leftovers of cheep purchased unexposed negative rolls Hackenschmied produced his first film in 1930, called Aimless Walk. The eight minute long film consisting mainly of wanderings in the outskirts of Prague could be interpreted as the antithesis of Svatopluk Innemann’s promotional piece (Prague at Night) which was commissioned by an electricity company. Innemann’s film about the artificial forcing of daylight onto the night is a foppish portrait of the attractive, adventurous and restless metropolis. Hackenschmied’s experiment in contrast, captures the hundred-spired city in its casualwear, resisting pathos and focusing on the remnants of its austere wilderness. The stationary warfare between nature surrounding the city (eventually sneaking into it) and the artificial structures of factory chimneys threatening from above results in schizophrenic images presented by Hackenschmied as duplication of the human body. But Aimless Walk is not a chronicle of the tragedy of the modernity, it interprets the unceasing cross-talk between convex and concave, regular and irregular, geometric and chaotic, profane and ethereal. In Hackenscmied’s visual poem the lines of the stubborn towers wave meekly reflected on the river surface and the rigidly stretched cables which feed the voracious city have a lyrical texture with the mackerel-sky in the background.
The Prague Castle works as a portrait of one of the largest preserved medieval castles and celebrates the fruitful marriage of art with the accuracy of engineering. Hackenschmied exploits plastic cutting to bring spaces and shapes into a common denominator. By increasing the intensity he creates tension (Frantisek Bartos’s music has an essential role in this), with witty highlights he starts a dialogue between similar forms, with the variation of angles and camera movements he assigns briskness to the presented spaces. By almost completely ignoring the human presence Hackenschmied gives a bigger role to his interest in architecture (which was already apparent in Aimless Walk), while carrying on his experiments with the collision of opposites.
Hackenschmied’s two first films are major milestones of the Czech avant-garde. Even if he was born in Austria and got famous in the United States, his highly-personal films on Prague insure that he will always belong, in part, to Czech film history.
Written by: Dorottya Szalay
 Sitney, Adams P.: Visionary Film. The American Avant-garde 1943-2000, Oxford University Press, 2002
 P. Adams Sitney’s term.
Aimless Walk (1930)