In 1947, Hans Richter collaborated with Man Ray, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder, Fernand Leger, and Marcel Duchamp on the surrealist experimental film Dreams That Money Can Buy. The plot concerns Joe, a man who can’t come up with the rent for his apartment. He accidentally discovers that by looking closely into his own eye in the mirror, he can see the inner workings of his thoughts. He realizes he can do the same to others and sets up a business, where he examines peoples’ minds and produces “dreams” for them that satisfy their desires. Richter’s various collaborators each produced one of the dream sequences of Joe’s clients. As is declared in the beginning, “this is the story of dreams mixed with reality,” but the dreams are the focus, and eventually start bleeding into reality. The visions of the characters are filmed using a variety of techniques, not only in terms of lighting, camera angles and superimposition, but also utilizing elements of creative montage editing, and both traditional and stop-motion animation. The dreams are almost all set to music and many include graceful dances of inanimate objects. The film, due to its psychological exploration, focuses a great deal on repression, the subconscious, and the true self, but seems to parody those concepts. For instance, Joe, who obviously knows nothing about psychology, throws around the word “subconscious” and assumes a superior position to his clients. Even though the movie is primarily a visual exercise, the character’s voice has a strange and ironic role. The characters rarely speak directly, instead communicating by what seems like inner monologues somehow partially audible to one another. It’s as if each character has at least two voices; one that speaks in the first person, and another that addresses the character directly in the second person. The latter is often sarcastic and sounds like an advertisement. This undermines the idea of the self, as it is impossible to say where one voice ends and the other begins. With its beautiful visual experiments and snide attitude towards the simplified psychology presented in mainstream cinema at the time, Dreams That Money Can Buy is a fascinating film that showcases the talents of the famous artists involved.
The dream sequences parody certain cultural conventions of the time that were used in many popular movies. For instance, in the sequence “Desire,” directed by Max Ernst, the dream that Joe constructs for his first customer extensively uses the cliches of adventure movies. This includes underground tunnels, elaborate costumes, the swooning damsel in distress needing to be rescued, as well as the traditional visuals that accompany such scenes, like smoke and the sinuous movement of cloth to suggest sensuality. The “Prefabricated Heart” sequence, by Fernand Leger, literally deconstructs the female body and the cultural constructs that are forced upon women. However, besides this ironic attitude towards the traditions of popular cinema, the sequences that delve deep into the psychology of the characters, such as “Narcissus” (Joe’s vision), are more frightening than anything else. “Narcissus” is a perfectly surreal sequence in which objects lose their meaning; the rungs of a ladder disappear as he climbs up it and the rails morph into ribbons. In a moment reminiscent of Meshes of the Afternoon, Joe finds himself holding a knife that he had previously thrown aside. The sardonic voice-over is replaced by Joe’s voice speaking in the first person and shaking with fear. Overall, the film is innovative and enjoyable. Perhaps not the best representation of the work of the artists involved, but a fascinating document of filmmaking experiments and input from artists that are better known for their non-cinematic ventures.