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

“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)