It might be one of the wonderful paradoxes of cinema that Austria, a country not at all known for its film industry, has produced one of the richest and best-regarded traditions of experimental cinema. In the second half of the 1950s, when in most countries "experimental" still meant psychodrama and late Surrealism, Austrian filmmakers Kurt Kren and Peter Kubelka began to use the medium in a decidedly structural way. Taking their cue from turn-of-the-century Viennese modernism in music and linguistic philosophy, they looked at the material reality of film and treated it as a contemporary composer would (Schoenberg, let's say, or Anton von Webern). Their celluloid scores moved to a metric, mathematical, or serial beat, pumping light, color, and fragments of reality toward the viewer's retina with elegance and speed.
As the more quiet and introverted of the two, Kren had a much tougher time making his voice heard internationally. In the late '60s and early 1970s, however, major American and British structuralist filmmakers such as Ernie Gehr and Malcolm LeGrice discovered and admired him as a forerunner of their own concerns. At that point, Kren had already left Vienna behind--his creative association with the "scandalous" Actionist artists had earned him continuous hassles from the police and the conservative establishment. He lived in Germany, took part in documenta 7 at Kassel, then moved on to the United States--living on the road and working as a museum guard in Houston. Some of his best work derives from this long period (and experience) of exile. He returned to Vienna in 1989, at last recognized in his own country. During the 1990s his work was presented by major museums and cinematheques around the world. His next-to-last film, thousandyearsofcinema (tausendjahrekino),was widely praised and has been shown at the New York Film Festival, among many others.
Apart from the formal intensity, there is also a "documentary" dimension in Kren's films that cannot be discounted. In terms of creating lasting and quite moving image-crystals from fleeting everyday moments, he has few peers among filmmakers. It might be a tree in the wind, a green-red bottle of wine, three little girls on a Venice boardwalk, or the wild and wet Happenings of Vienna's Actionist art--all of these real-world events are turned into haunting (and silent) condensations of space and time.
Writing about "the formal brilliance and distinctive vision" of Kren's short films, Steve Anker of the San Francisco Cinematheque also noted that each of them "is a gem of conceptual organization mediating between camera and some place or activity in the world, bringing its subject to pulsating life. The casualness with which Kren presented his work caught me off guard, and I learned a lesson in humility when the richness of these deceptively simple films hit me."
When Kurt Kren died on June 23, 1998, at the age of 69, Peter Weibel wrote in an obituary: "This is not about the passing of a filmmaker only, it's about the passing of a great 20th-century artist."
--Alexander Horwath, series curator, independent curator, and author of The Last Great American Picture Show
KURT KREN: FLASHES FROM CINEMA'S FIRST THOUSAND YEARS IS MADE POSSIBLE BY GENEROUS SUPPORT FROM THE AUSTRIAN FEDERAL ARTS DEPARTMENT.