Most visual art forms, like painting, sculpture, or still photography, take a while to get from representation to abstraction, but cinema had a head start, thanks in large part to the groundbreaking efforts of a German filmmaker named Walter Ruttmann. He did it in the early 1920s, not much more than twenty years after the birth of the medium itself, with Lichtspiel Opus 1, which you can watch above. Lichtspiel Opus 2, 3, and 4 follow it in the video, but though equally enchanting on an aesthetic level, especially in their integration of imagery and music, none hold the impressive distinction of being the very first abstract film ever screened for the public that Lichtspiel Opus 1 does.
"Following the First World War, Ruttmann, a painter, had moved from expressionism to full-blown abstraction," writes Gregory Zinman in A New History of German Cinema. As early as 1917, "Ruttmann argued that filmmakers 'had become stuck in the wrong direction,' due to their misunderstanding of cinema's essence,'" which prompted him to use "the technologically derived medium of film to produce new art, calling for 'a new method of expression, one different from all the other arts, a medium of time. An art meant for our eyes, one differing from painting in that it has a temporal dimension (like music), and in the rendition of a (real or stylized) moment in an event or fact, but rather precisely in the temporal rhythm of visual events."
To realize this new art form, Ruttmann came up with, and even patented, a kind of animation technique. Once a painter, always a painter, he found a way to make films using oils and brushes. As experimental animations scholar William Moritz described it, Ruttmann created Lichtspiel Opus I with images "painted with oil on glass plates beneath an animation camera, shooting a frame after each brush stroke or each alteration because the wet paint could be wiped away or modified quite easily. He later combined this with geometric cut-outs on a separate layer of glass."
The result still looks and feels quite unlike the animation we know today, and certainly resembled nothing any of its first viewers had even seen when it premiered in Germany in April 1921. This puts it ahead, chronologically, of the work of Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling, creators of some of the earliest masterpieces of abstract film in the early 1920s, not screened for the public until 1923. Alas, when Hitler came to power and declared abstract art "degenerate," according to Bennett O'Brian at Pretty Clever Films, Ruttmann didn't flee but "remained in Germany and worked with Leni Riefenstahl on The Triumph of the Will." In wartime, he "was put to work directing propaganda reels like 1940’s Deutsche Panzer which follows the manufacturing process of armored tanks."
Alas, "his decision to stay in Germany during the war would eventually cost Ruttmann his life," which ended in 1944 with a mortal wound endured while filming a battle in Russia. But however ideologically and morally questionable his later work, Ruttmann, with his pioneering journey into abstract animation, opened up a creative realm only accessible to filmmakers that, even as we approach an entire century after Lichtspiel Opus I, filmmakers have far from fully explored.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.