The Degenerate Opus of Walter Ruttmann
While endeavoring to redefine who was and wasn’t considered a human being, the cultural policies of Adolph Hitler’s government also sought to redefine what was and wasn’t considered art. Starting in the mid-1930s the German government banned and publicly destroyed artwork viewed to be modernist or expressionist in nature, including works by Picasso, Dalí and Miró. They called it degenerate art, and it was part of a nationwide indoctrination process designed to change the way Germans felt about cultural influences from beyond their borders. The policy was extremely effective. Previously free-thinking individuals began to reject the avant-garde in the interests of nationalism and amongst the converted was a man who once elevated the animated film beyond cartooning into the realm of fine art; Walter Ruttmann.
Ruttmann served in his country’s military during World War I but he lived on with severe psychological trauma, eventually requiring a period of institutionalization. Although Ruttmann would go on to have a successful career in Germany’s commercial film industry, his first set of animated short films were progressively unconventional and more more in line with contemporary abstract painting – like a Kandinsky painting come to life. Created between 1921 and 1924, Ruttmann’s four-part series was originally called “Lichtspiel Opus” which literally means ‘Play of Light’. In Ruttmann’s light play there are no characters and no discernible narrative to follow, but rather a movement of basic shapes tinted with colour which expresses an artistic interplay on the same level as jazz music or modern dance. Today the opus may appear to some as a primitive music visualizer or screen saver program, but Ruttmann created his cinematic abstractions before more celebrated experimental films like Marcel Duchamp’s Dadaist Anemic Cinema (1926). Ruttmann’s animated opus is abstract, it is avant-garde and it is exactly the kind of modernist self-expression that the Nazi government would later decry as degenerate and inherently un-German. It is then all the more puzzling that one of the forerunners of the experimental film would later spent his final days making propaganda for the Nazi war machine.
Ruttmann created his avant-garde opus with a primitive form of paint-on-glass animation, where each painted shape is photographed from above before being wiped from the glass surface and then repainted for the next frame. The first in the series, Lichtspiel Opus I (1921), was originally screened with a live orchestra and is considered to be the first experimental animation ever to be theatrically exhibited. The changing shapes of Ruttmann’s opus are intentionally devoid of a set meaning, however the pacing and use of colour creates a variety of contrasting visual moods. The animated forms seen in Opus I are often rounded and their movement seem fluid and calming, like watching the Northern Lights or the heated wax inside a lava lamp, which are then disrupted by a series of bothersome triangles. In Opus II and Opus III the shapes are sharper, the pacing is more frantic and the red and black colours create a more aggressive and unpleasant tone. Opus II and Opus III use patterns and rows of squares and rectangles which for me reflected an accelerated state of industrialization but (if I remember my university notes on Dadaism correctly) that interpretation is likely my analytical brain attempting to find a tangible meaning where none can be found.
Ruttmann’s initial flirtation with abstract expressionism was apparently overlooked by the Nazi government when Joseph Goebbels nationalized the UFA studio for the purposes of cultural indoctrination. Perhaps this was because of Ruttmann’s uber-patriotic documentary Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), which Ruttmann directed after working on Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924) and Metropolis (1927). Ruttmann also collaborated with animator Lotte Reiniger on her silhouette masterwork The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) which is Europe’s first full-length animated feature. Many filmmakers such as Lang and Reiniger fled their homeland during the Nazi regime, but Ruttmann remained in Germany and worked with Leni Riefenstahl on The Triumph of the Will (1935); a carefully choreographed cinematic exaltation of Adolf Hitler which is both soaring and mythological in its tenor. By the time World War II arrived, Ruttmann was put to work directing propaganda reels like 1940’s Deutsche Panzer which follows the manufacturing process of armored tanks. His decision to stay in Germany during the war would eventually cost Ruttmann his life. In July 1944, Ruttmann was seriously wounded while filming a battle on the Russian frontlines and transported back to Berlin where he died from his injuries.
The expressionistic shapes in Ruttmann’s four-part opus had a great influence on another experimental animator from Germany, Oskar Fischinger. After moving to the United States, Fischinger briefly worked for Walt Disney Pictures on projects like Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) and also created An Optical Poem (1938) for MGM.