The Avant-Garde Animated Films of Walter Ruttmann, Still Strikingly Fresh a Century Later (1921–1925)

Though regard­ed by many as near-impos­si­bly dif­fi­cult to judge, avant-garde art can be put to its own test of time: does it still feel new ten, twen­ty, fifty, a hun­dred years lat­er? Now that most of Wal­ter Ruttman­n’s short ani­mat­ed films have passed the cen­tu­ry mark, we can with some con­fi­dence say they pass that test. A few years ago, we fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture his Licht­spiel Opus 1, the first avant-garde ani­ma­tion ever made. Now, with this playlist, you can watch it and sev­er­al of its suc­ces­sors, which togeth­er date from the years 1921 through 1925.

“A trained archi­tect and painter,” writes Car­toon Brew’s Amid Ami­di, Ruttmann “worked as a graph­ic design­er pri­or to becom­ing involved with film. He fought in WWI, suf­fered a ner­vous break­down and spent time recov­er­ing in a sana­to­ri­um.”

It was after that har­row­ing expe­ri­ence that he plunged into the still-new medi­um of ani­ma­tion, and he evi­dent­ly brought the com­bined aes­thet­ic refine­ment of archi­tec­ture, paint­ing, and graph­ic design with him. His four-part Opus series (top) shows us “how abstract ani­ma­tion doesn’t become dat­ed as quick­ly as rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al ani­ma­tion because its cre­ation is not pred­i­cat­ed upon the styl­is­tic trap­pings of its era.”

This also holds true for Ruttman­n’s adver­tis­ing work, includ­ing the three-minute Der Sieger just above. Por­tray­ing “the strug­gles of a durable Excel­sior tire that climbs entire build­ings and wraps itself around the sun to pro­tect it from tri­an­gu­lar shapes with mean-look­ing faces,” as this sum­ma­ry of a talk by film schol­ar Michael Cow­an puts it, the short “is a per­fect exam­ple tes­ti­fy­ing to how a lot of avant-garde artists — con­trary to pop­u­lar belief — nev­er lost sight for a cer­tain applic­a­bil­i­ty of their art in that their con­cepts of form also implied a cer­tain idea of ‘form­ing’: the poten­tial to take dif­fer­ent shapes through mor­ph­ing, to find order­ing prin­ci­ples, or even to com­mu­ni­cate the ide­o­log­i­cal impe­tus of form­ing a nation­al body.”

That last holds espe­cial­ly true for Ruttman­n’s “lat­er work with­in the con­text of Nation­al Social­ism”: an unfor­tu­nate-sound­ing con­text, though it must be not­ed that he dis­pleased Adolf Hitler enough to be per­son­al­ly removed by the dic­ta­tor from the project that would become Leni Riefen­stahl’s Tri­umph of the Will. His artis­tic phi­los­o­phy may have been com­pat­i­ble with sell­ing tires, but it seems not to have served the much more bom­bas­tic and lit­er­al form of Nazi pro­pa­gan­da. That is, of course, to Ruttman’s cred­it, as is the fresh­ness his ear­ly ani­ma­tions still exude these hun­dred or so years lat­er. As Amid writes, “the graph­ic forms used in his film are the same build­ing blocks — raw and unadorned — used by artists today.” But how many artists today use them with such ele­gance?

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

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

Opti­cal Poems by Oskar Fischinger, the Avant-Garde Ani­ma­tor Despised by Hitler, Dissed by Dis­ney

The Exper­i­men­tal Abstract Films of Pio­neer­ing Amer­i­can Ani­ma­tor Mary Ellen Bute (1930s-1950s)

Spheres Dance to the Music of Bach, Per­formed by Glenn Gould: An Ani­ma­tion from 1969

The Gold­en Age of Berlin Comes to Life in the Clas­sic, Avant-Garde Film, Berlin: Sym­pho­ny of a Metrop­o­lis (1927)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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