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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