A starter pack for the surrealism film genre

Surrealism is a film genre that doesn’t use the traditional narrative, but rather art or symbols to convey a message. The genre is eccentric and started from an early age in cinematic history in the 1920s. As the movement started after the catastrophe of World War I, many underlying themes including famine, death and despair became part of the genre’s characteristics. Here are some intriguing films to get you started in the surrealism genre.


The Alphabet’ (David Lynch, 1968)

This short, creepy and repetitive film renounces the alphabet in ways you were never taught. Your perspective on such a simplistic aspect of your childhood will change as letters are rewritten and morphed in ways never imagined. The uncomfortable sounds and incorrect singing of the actual alphabet song is enough to make anyone cringe from the torment of exploring the grey area of an original black-and-white piece. The film is available on YouTube and is a great exploration into surrealism as many frames within the film represent endless possibilities.


Meshes of the Afternoon’ (Maya Deren, 1943)

A cloaked figure catches the attention of a woman heading into her apartment. She sleeps in a chair and follows a dream sequence. The sequence contains the mysterious figure, a knife, a flower on a driveway and various other juxtaposing images that have deeper concepts within them. Furthermore, the film contains themes of self-identity. It’s definitely a film to watch to introduce anyone to surrealism as it is filled with 14 minutes of curiosities and twists. “Meshes of the Afternoon” is available to watch on YouTube. 


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‘Eraserhead’ (David Lynch, 1977)

If “The Alphabet” didn’t scare you off from Lynch’s work, “Eraserhead” just might. As the film is arguably one of the closest to a linear narrative produced by Lynch, it still adds many open-ended images for the audience to interpret. The film follows Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) as he discovers his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), is carrying a child. After a long, uncomfortable family meal and some chicken imagery, the two decide to move into Spencer’s apartment. The only issue is the child. As Spencer pictures it as a terrifying beast, many obstacles or visions affect his state of mind. Overall, if you are into gore or horrifying pictures, this is a great example of Lynch’s finest work. It is available to buy on Amazon Prime and other online distributors.


The Seashell and the Clergyman’ (Germaine Dulac, 1928)

“The Seashell and the Clergyman” is a French surrealism film. Debatably one of the first of its time, the film follows hallucinations of a priest following a woman. Various shots partake in the symbolistic effects of World War I. This film is available for free on YouTube and allows for more imagery to digest. 

Surrealism is an odd sub-genre that doesn’t receive the publicity it deserves. Similar to experimental film and often having themes of horror, surrealism focuses on imagery. Each symbolic image can represent several social issues within our society. Furthermore, surrealism is an intriguing, uncomfortable and awkward genre, but it will change your perspective on the simplest of ideas.