“Opus III”, An Early Abstract Masterpiece by Walter Ruttmann

To fully appreciate Opus III by German filmmaker Walter Ruttman, it’s worth it to first look at a typical cartoon from 1924, such as this one:

Now, here is Ruttman’s short from the same year:

This is not to claim that Ruttmann’s short is better. Rather, it’s an illustration of 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. Eighty-eight years separate Ruttmann’s work from animation today, but the graphic forms used in his film are the same building blocks–raw and unadorned–used by artists today.

A largely neglected figure in animation history, Ruttmann’s work influenced many who followed him, including Oskar Fischinger, Hans Richter and Norman McLaren. He holds the distinction of being the first filmmaker to publicly screen an abstract animated short–it was on April 27, 1921 when he presented Lichtspiel Opus 1 in Berlin’s Marmorhaus. Fischinger was in attendance at the theater that evening.

Shortly after he made the short Opus III, he animated on Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which was the first European animated feature. Reiniger said of Ruttman: “[He] invented and created wonderful movements for the magic events, fire, volcanoes, [and] battles of good and evil spirits.” Ruttman also made significant live action films, such as Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927).

Ruttmann’s personal history is fascinating and far too complex to be covered in such brief space. A trained architect and painter, he 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. Historian Giannalberto Bendazzi labeled him a “contradictory intellectual” because he was “a follower of the left [who] later unconditionally supported Hitler.” Indeed, Ruttmann was involved in the production of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will in 1935. He died in July, 1941, from wounds suffered on the front lines as a war photographer.

UPDATE: Stephen has followed this post with an excellent write-up about Opus III that places Ruttmann’s work in the context of art history and painting.

(Hat tip, @FezFilms)


  • http://popyea.deviantart.com/ nick

    Was the music part of the original film? Because that alone really elevated it for me. It was great.

  • http://www.segaltoons.com Steve Segal

    Amid – I like how you put this work in context and gave us enough information about his life to make us want to learn more. Maybe when you finish the Kimball book you should write one about abstract and experimental animation. The Russett and Starr book is good, but the subject could use the Cartoon Modern treatment.

  • http://whataboutthad.com Thad

    Rather, it’s an illustration of 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. Eighty-eight years separate Ruttmann’s work from animation today, but the graphic forms used in his film are the same building blocks—raw and unadorned—used by artists today.

    The example used, a cutdown of a non-top-drawer Felix the Cat, is indeed dated in some of its animation techniques. However, there’s nothing dated about Otto Messmer’s methods in appealing and interesting characterization, acting, funny timing, or using conflict, the basis for all great narratives, be they comedy, drama, or otherwise.

    By comparison, non-representational abstract art, be it still or animated, does not have any of this to worry about because it’s non-representational. It can mean anything. The film is an intellectual exercise, plain and simple. The filmmaker got to move around some colors and shapes in interesting ways and express his disdain for convention, while the audience can pat themselves on the back and feel smarter for watching it, even if they have no clear definition of what they just saw. It is hard to determine what Ruttmann wanted the mood of this piece to be, given that this has a soundtrack added decades after the fact.

    It’s easy to see why so many students choose to do abstract animation for their films. Artistic merit is completely subjective regardless of technique, but the criteria for what makes great, representational character animation is much narrower. In the non-representational world, anything can qualify as a masterpiece because the analyzation possibilities are inherently endless.

    • http://bestanimatedshort.blogspot.com ajnrules

      “It must be some symbolism. I think it’s symbolic of junk!”

      • http://bestanimatedshort.blogspot.com ajnrules

        BTW, that doesn’t reflect my actual opinion on this film. I think it’s a marvelous work. I just can’t help but think of The Critic every time I see a piece of abstract animation.

    • http://brayanimationweebly.com Tom Stathes

      Well said, Thad. Perhaps the only thing that truly dates the Felix cartoon is mere knowledge of when it was made as well as lack of a synchronized track. Curious how some contemporary student/independent animated films will be viewed in 90 years and if their “datedness” at that time should carry any weight in one’s critical analysis of them.

      Oh, and I noticed some image weave and dust specks in the Opus film–looks like it was made yesterday!

    • http://artnote.blog.com Stephen

      You have it backwards – abstraction is more difficult because it lacks the familiar parameters that make it easily understandable. Realism imitates, “the illusion of life” and all that. It’s not that there are no rules in abstraction; rather, no one knows the rules, and so we all have to fumble around and find out what works. I worked at an art museum, and I saw a lot of abstract art get the thumbs-down, with good reason.

      • http://www.cartoonbrew.com/author/amid amid

        Wonderfully put, Stephen.

      • http://artnote.blog.com Stephen

        Thanks, Amid. I was inspired to blog about the film from an art history angle. It’s like seeing glimpses of art to come.
        http://artnote.blog.com/2012/03/22/abstracted-thoughts/

    • http://www.cartoonbrew.com/author/amid amid

      Thad wrote, The example used, a cutdown of a non-top-drawer Felix the Cat, is indeed dated in some of its animation techniques.

      There’s no such thing as a top-drawer Felix from a graphic standpoint. They all look dated visually, no matter how much great acting, characterization and narrative Messmer put into the films——and this is coming from someone who appreciates the films.

      As an experiment, add a modern hip-hop soundtrack to the Felix cartoon, show it to somebody who has never heard of Felix, and it wouldn’t fool them that it’s anything but a vintage cartoon. However, if you added a similarly familiar contemporary piece of music to Ruttman’s short, and asked people to identify when it was made, it could easily be confused for an abstract film created today. The graphics haven’t become dated as badly, and that was my sole point in the comparison of the two shorts.

      Your criticisms of abstract animation ——”it’s easy to see why so many students choose to do abstract animation for their films” —— reflect common but misguided criticisms of the form. Abstract animation deals with emotion and feeling, much like narrative film does, but it does so in a more freeform and cerebral manner. Abstract animation has the potential to elicit all kinds of emotions and responses from the viewer if the viewer sets aside their preconceived notions of what a film should be. If you see enough of the films, it also become surprisingly easy to identify when an abstract animator is exploring something real or is simply going through the paces. A good abstract filmmaker will use rhythms and patterns of timing as any other animator would, and will make a full visual exploration of the materials he/she is using.

      • http://brayanimationweebly.com Tom Stathes

        Perhaps our question is, “Why is ‘datedness’ an issue on an animation history blog?” What purpose or motive does the comparison (or contrast) between both films serve? This is not entirely clear and seems to indeed come off as some kind of judgment–just indicating what one may come out with by reading the original post.

        In all fairness, I believe no one type of animated film deserves extra care, attention, or funds for preservation over another–particularly from this earlier period. To label either type as more or less dated or irrelevant today may hinder general interest. After all, there are some people reading this and other blogs who take the critical cues and standpoints of the posters like puppy dogs.

      • http://whataboutthad.com Thad

        Holding the dated graphic look of Otto Messmer’s or any silent animator’s work against it is like faulting D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” or Chaplin’s “The Rink” for looking like something made in 1916. It’s ironic my misgivings about abstraction are misguided when the point of this comparison seems wholly snobbish at best.

        Do not attempt to estimate the average viewer’s minds either. Most kids that didn’t know how to read roman numerals thought Sullivan and Bray cartoons were made the same decade they came to television. Thomas, please confirm this.

        Abstraction is cool. This work by Ruttman is cool. My point is there is good abstraction and bad abstraction, but it seems that nothing gets a “thumbs down” in abstract animation because the possibilities to understanding are so “endless”. No doubt it’s my perversity that keeps me from embracing this sort of thinking fully.

        BTW, is Felix being able to use parts of his body as tools or distort into different shapes not a form of abstraction? The overlap is more common than you think.

      • http://brayanimationweebly.com Tom Stathes

        That’s correct, Thadwell.

    • Carl Russo

      Nah. Comparing narrative works with abstract ones serves nothing. It’s like comparing science with religion–two separate realms altogether.

      The abstract short presented here gives a different experience than the narrative–different parts of the brain are stimulated.

      I don’t congratulate myself for enjoying it–I’m a fan of Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, et. al. Watching these abstract filmmakers doesn’t make me feel smarter; I was already smart to begin with.

      BTW, I prefer watching kooky narratives like the Looney Tunes–but there’s no way to quantify them as superior.

    • Fernando Ferreira Garróz

      ajnrules – An abstract film (as an abstract painting) could be, yes, judged objectively. Of course it is more dificult, because we have to make an structural analysis, something almost no one (except painters or musicians) is trained to. We are trained to deal with narratives, back when we are infants, in our mother’s and grandmother’s lap, but nobody encourages us to see the world as a combination of forms, colors and movement, and how to rearrange this elements to make a symphony (an example). Music and the fundaments of art are the key to appreciate abstract films. You can judge them by the way they explore the space of the screen canvas, and by how the forms progress in time – if they are obvious, clever, monotonous, vibrant, and so on.

      In my opinion, some abstract films work better without music (except if it was a visual interpretation of an specific music composition). That way it’s more easy to judge them as a composition and orchestration of forms and colors in time.

      There are great abstract films and bad abstract films, the same as in narrative films. The films of Ruttmann are among the great, because he was one the first (in movies) to attempt, and the one who was better suceeded (better than Eggling and Richter, in my opinion), to show us a way of express feelings toward the world without the aid of realistic representation. (Excuse some errors in my english)

  • http://artnote.blog.com Stephen

    Has anyone written a book on abstract animation? If not, isn’t it time someone did?

  • Fernando Ferreira Garróz

    Ruttmann was truly a genius and one of the best of 1920s Avant Garde. His films have very good taste and are meticulously crafted. We don’t have to be condescending when we see them today.
    Also remarkable is his work with Fritz Lang in Siegfried (the dream sequence: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S07u0t9AsyU) and Metropolis (his job on this film is not very clear, but I’m pretty sure that, among other things, he was the creator of the animated graphics in the title sequence).

  • John A

    Go ahead and call me a lowbrow— I’ll take Felix any day.

  • http://saturnome.blogspot.com/ Saturnome

    A huge difference I see here is that Walter Ruttmann’s film was restored and got a pretty good score, all for a very great 2-DVD set of his work. While the Felix isn’t in very good shape, distorted and cropped, and Paul Whiteman’s Whispering doesn’t fit with the cartoon at all (except for the fact that it’s old). Is there any good, restored DVD release of Felix silent shorts? With the classics shorts (or every surviving shorts, just like Ruttman’s) and not a random selection?
    Sure, Felix looks very, very dated (though abstract art with solid shapes is very “1910s-1920s” to me!) but he needs some love I think.

    • Chris Sobieniak

      Some of us think that way too. No doubt a restoration of Felix with some excellent music would help definitely, just as much as we’ve seen from the restoration given to Ruttman’s creations.

  • Tim

    This is disgusting, the title of the Felix cartoon sums up how low this once family friendly blog will stoop to earn ratings.

    Actually it is a rather unfair comparison, as circles and squares never go out of fashion, and there is no story to betray it’s orgins. The Felix cartoon, which is actually quite clever, as the others I have seen are, seems to be missing the second half as well. Sounds like a bit of voter fraud going on here.

    Both films were good, but I prefer the Felix.

  • Andrew Kieswetter

    Ruttman’s short is amazing, it looks like it could be from a later decade. The Felix cartoon however looks like a product of its time.

  • http://www.dougskinner.net Doug Skinner

    You got me curious about the beautiful Eisler score for the Ruttmann, so I did a little Googling. Eisler composed it for the film in 1927, for a chamber music festival in Baden Baden. Also on the bill, coincidentally, was “Felix the Cat at the Circus,” with music by Hindemith (apparently now lost). Ruttmann and Felix were together from the beginning!