Alexander Hackenschmied (1907-2004) began his career in the culturally thriving Czechoslovakia of between the two World Wars, making one of the first Czech avant-garde films in 1930. After his emigration to the USA, where he abbreviated Hackenschmied to Hammid, he made together with Maya Deren several films which strongly influenced the American film avant-garde. Neither his name(s) nor his work are especially well-known, a situation the HYPERKINO edition of his films aims to amend.
Alexander Hackenschmied was born on the 17th of December 1907 as an illegitimate child in Linz (then part of the Habsburg Empire, today in Austria). Shortly afterwards he moved with his parents (Božena Šmahelová and František X. Hackenschmied) to Bohemia. His childhood, studies and early work are connected with Prague, and specifically Karlín, a worker’s district.
At the age of 12 he got his first camera (a Voigtländer 6x4 cm) and started taking photographs. He studied Architecture and Art History, but he did not finish university starting instead to work with Czech film directors as an art director (e.g. with G. Machatý).
As a writer he contributed to the journal Pestrý týden and published in some other magazines and cultural sections of Czech newspapers (mostly film reviews). Some of his longer texts about film as an independent art are published in the book Cinema All the Time: An Anthology of Czech Film Theory and Criticism, 1908-1939 .
In 1930 he made BEZÚČELNÁ PROCHÁZKA / AIMLESS WALK, which was shown in the Prague theatre Kotva in November of the same year, together with other avant-garde films chosen by Hackenschmied. 1932 he made the film NA PRAŽSKÉM HRADĚ / THE PRAGUE CASTLE and in 1932/33 he collaborated on ZEM SPIEVA / THE EARTH IS SINGING with K. Plicka.
In the 1930s Hackenschmied worked for the Film Studio in Zlín (Filmové Ateliéry Baťových závodů: FAB), founded by Jan A. Bat’a in 1936. Bat’a was hiring young filmmakers and artists to develop modern non-fiction film, primarily for advertising. While employed there, Hackenschmied cooperated on numerous advertising films, one of the most famous was directed by Elmar Klos in 1937, SILNICE ZPÍVÁ / THE HIGHWAY SINGS, showing tires in motion (another product of Bat’a’s). He had the opportunity to travel to Paris (1936) and to the USA (1939). One of journeys for Bat’a took him to India where he shot film material for a documentary, later edited by E. Klos. It was while in India that Hackenschmied’s lifelong interest in Buddhism began.
In 1938 he shot together with the American director Herbert Kline CRISIS / KRIZE. This documentary film reflected the political situation in the Sudeten in the year of the Munich Agreement which led to the destruction of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 (a goal explicitly outlined by Hitler in Mein Kampf). When the film premiered in the end of March 1939 in New York, Hackenschmied had already left the country. One of the critics titled in The New York World Telegram: "Timely Film Shown on Munich 'Betrayal'. 'The Crisis' Tells Story of Tragedy in Czechoslovakia's Dismemberment at Hands of Europe's Great Powers". On the 15th of March 1939 the Nazi occupied the “rest of Czechoslovakia”. Hackenschmied went first to Paris and then London where he – again with Kline - completed LIGHTS OUT IN EUROPE (1939-40) with footage from Poland and Danzig.
In 1939 Hackenschmied arrived in the USA, becoming a US Citizen in 1942 changing his name to Alexander Hammid. It was here that he met the dancer, choreographer and poet Maya Deren (born as Eleanora Derenkovskaia in Kiev). The films they made together in the forties were meant to play a seminal role in the development of American experimental cinema. These films, made by two European immigrants outside the American movie industry provided or (re)introduced an aesthetic model of cinema as art.
Deren subsequently became a filmmaker in her own right. It seems that in MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943) for the first time Hammid closely worked with a female partner who not only proved to be his equal but also gave his superb command of film technique a new direction. Deren filled Hammid’s somewhat detached visual world with passionate emotionality; it was probably her who contributed the melodramatic motifs from surrealist art (the artificial hand picking up an artificial flower, the enigmatic mirror-faced figure or the magrittesque knife in a loaf of bread).
Although the film was shot in “Hollywood” as the opening credits ironically state, the experimental MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON was very far from everything the Hollywood studios were standing for (the short film was in fact not shot in a studio but a private house in the Hollywood Hills).
Hammid and Deren were married in 1942 but the marriage did not last very long. They made a few more films together, including AT LAND (1944) and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF A CAT (1946). In September 1947, the year when Deren presented MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943) at the Cannes Film Festival and was awarded the Grand Prix Internationale (in the category of 16mm Film, Experimental Class), they were divorced.
In 1948, Hammid married photographer Hella Heyman (who had worked with Deren as a cinematographer, for example in AT LAND). They had two children, Julia and Tino.
He worked for the Office of War Information and for the United Nations making documentaries, including THE VALLEY OF THE TENNESSEE (1944) and A BETTER TOMORROW (1945). Some films were commissioned by private institutions (e.g. a film about Princeton University in 1947). In the 1950s he concentrated on social documentaries, like ANGRY BOY (1950 for the Mental Health Film Board and State of Michigan) and MARRIAGE TODAY (1950, a “social guidance” for young couples). Many of his films of that period have been considered as ephemeral but are being given more attention recently as potent documents of their time. Some also carry his distinct handwriting. 1960s he directed films on musicians like Pablo Casals and Yasha Heifetz.
After his first film (shot on his own in the outskirts of Prague in 1930) Hammid mostly worked in teams. He often did not insist on being credited properly even when he considerably contributed to the concept and even the directing of the film. In his later career he worked with Francis Thompson for over 25 years, producing numerous documentaries. In 1964, Hammid co-directed the documentary TO BE ALIVE! (1964, as Alexander Hackenschmied) which was shown at the New York World's Fair in 1964 and won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in 1965. He also worked on the IMAX format film TO FLY (1976, a documentary on the history of flight produced for the Smithsonian Institution).
During his years with Francis Thompson, Inc. A. Hammid was involved with several other early IMAX films. Speaking at Francis Thompson’s memorial service in 2004, Graham Ferguson, owner of the Imax Corp. recalled how he had wanted Hammid and Thompson to make the first commercial IMAX films because of their extensive work in earlier large-scale multi-screen films.
After the war Hammid went back to Czechoslovakia only once. After 1989 many Czech filmmakers visited him in New York, though.
Alexander Hackenschmied / Sasha Hammid died on the 26th of July 2004 in Manhattan.
N. Drůbková / E. Sargeant / A. Šlingerová
 Petr Szczepanik – Jaroslav Anděl (eds.): Cinema All the Time: An Anthology of Czech Film Theory and Criticism, 1908-1939.Praha: NFA, 2008.
“Bezúčelná procházka” / “Aimless Walk” (1930): A. Hackenschmied’s “Film Study” of a Tram Ride to the Outskirts of Prague – Libeň