The First Avant Garde Animation: Watch Walter Ruttmann’s Lichtspiel Opus 1 (1921)

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 23, 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch “Geom­e­try of Cir­cles,” the Abstract Sesame Street Ani­ma­tion Scored by Philip Glass (1979)

The First Mas­ter­pieces of Abstract Film: Hans Richter’s Rhyth­mus 21 (1921) & Viking Eggeling’s Sym­phonie Diag­o­nale (1924)

Watch the Sur­re­al­ist Glass Har­mon­i­ca, the Only Ani­mat­ed Film Ever Banned by Sovi­et Cen­sors (1968)

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.

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