Moholy-Nagy's ABC in sound rediscovered in BFI National Archive after 80 years

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The BFI are delighted to announce the rediscovery of Bauhaus teacher and artist László Moholy-Nagy’s long ‘lost’ optical sound film, Tönendes ABC / ABC in Sound (1933), missing for over 80 years. The experimental film, from one of the most influential figures of the avant-garde, was found at the BFI National Archive and correctly identified by BFI Curators.

László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) was a tenacious, restless creative who associated with various early twentieth century vanguard art movements. Teaching at the legendary Bauhaus school, which this year sees its centenary, his early optical sound films experimented with the formal properties of film and blurred the lines between sound and image and the act of hearing and seeing sound. Newly scanned at 4K the restoration of Tönendes ABC /ABC in Sound (1933) will receive its world premiere at BFI Southbank on 18 June before being made available to view online for free on BFI Player in the UK and BFI YouTube for international viewers from 19 June.

In 2018, BFI National Archive curators Bryony Dixon and William Fowler were researching a programme around early experiments in optical sound. On inspection of the Oskar Fischinger film, Early Experiments in Hand Drawn Sound (1931) they realised the reel also contained another title, which they identified as the long ‘lost’ László Moholy-Nagy title Tönendes ABC or ABC in Sound (1933).

Audiences will have the first chance to see this ‘lost’ work onscreen as part of BFI Southbank’s monthly ‘Experimenta’ film strand at a Bauhaus-themed programme and panel event on 18 June (18:20), also part of the BFI Southbank 2 month Weimar Cinema season. Moholy-Nagy’s film will be presented alongside the Oskar Fischinger short which it has shared the last 80 plus years with, preserved together in the BFI National Archive.

Daniel Hug Director of the Moholy-Nagy Foundation and Grandson of the artist says, “The Moholy-Nagy Foundation is grateful to the BFI in finding this long lost film, a thrilling re-discovery of one of Moholy-Nagy's most radical film works, this reinforces his important contribution to film and sound art.”

William Fowler, BFI Curator Artist Moving Image said, “Artist filmmaking has a long, vibrant history within cinema. Tönendes ABC, or ABC in Sound demonstrates the level of invention that took place in the transition between the silent and sound eras. Its non-realist, formal play, mixing and blurring the distinctions between sound and image reflects Moholy-Nagy’s powerful, multi-disciplinary approach to creativity. We were delighted to discover the film in the Archive and look forward to new audiences connecting with Moholy-Nagy’s sensory experiment over 80 years after it was last screened in London”

The ‘lost and found’ story behind this rediscovery is extraordinary. The original nitrate reel of was spliced to a copy of Oskar Fischinger’s Early Experiments in Hand Drawn Sound for a screening programme at the London Film Society in 1936. The highly influential London Film Society (1925-1939), run by a group of active young cineastes with backgrounds in journalism, film business and the intelligentsia, was the first significant organisation to screen films outside of an immediately commercial context. Luminaries like H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw were named as supporters and the society programmed a mix of shorts and feature films spanning the globe as well as different genres.

The society promised to encourage the production of artistic films such as these experimental works by Moholy-Nagy and Fischinger, pushing the boundaries of sound and vision, blurring the lines between film and art. In the 1920s when it became possible to record sound as an image there was a flurry of bold, beautiful and sometimes bizarre experiments with ‘drawn’ soundtracks on film – images that made sound, and vice versa. The nitrate reel, referred to only as Early Experiments in Hand Drawn Sound with Tönendes ABC/ABC in Sound unknowingly still attached was then acquired by the BFI on 18th May 1951 and duped onto safety film on 29th October 1958. The original nitrate was not retained.

Premiere of new 4K restoration at BFI Southbank 18 June

Available on BFI Player and BFI YouTube from 19 June - search https://player.bfi.org.uk/free / https://www.youtube.com/user/BFIfilms

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Marcos Ortega's picture

Thanks for the information.

Thanks for the information. The statement and the chart are very interesting!

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