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It's been brought to my attention that Walter Ruttmann's four Lichtspiel films are available for download from Ubuweb. I'd never seen the films, and never expected to see them, so it was a surprise and a delight to be able to see them.
Who is Walter Ruttmann? Even if you've never heard of him, watching the films should at least remind you of someone: Oskar Fischinger, who saw the first film at its premiere in 1921 in Frankfurt and went on carry on the flame of these pioneering films with his own Studien and other abstract films. I first learned about the interaction between these two seminal figures of abstract animation when reading the late William Moritz's Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger, which appeared last year.
Lichtspiel Opus I was "the first abstract film to receive public performances". Ruttmann was trained in painting and music, both of which show up clearly in the Lichtspiel films. A piece of music was written for the films, and Ruttmann played the cello at screenings, but watched even completely silent the films pulse with a hypnotic, almost techno rhythm that's gripping, making music seem almost unnecessary, and making these films the earliest instances of bona-fide "visual music" that I've seen.
My first question when watching the films was: How were they made? It would seem that there was uncertainty about this until Moritz's book appeared, with one source citing Lotte Reininger saying she had seen him painting on small glass plates, which Moritz confirms. Ruttmann was already an abstract painter, so all he had to do was move his painting into the dimension of time. He painted on glass and photographed each drawing one frame at a time before modifying or adding to each drawing and photographing the new drawing, finally hand-coloring the film using various methods.
This is why, when Fischinger wanted to get started making films around the time Lichtspiel Opus II came out in 1922, he didn't go directly to painted/drawn animation, but instead invented a novel method of animation: wax. He chop-shopped a deli slicer into a machine that would cut through a ball of wax containing a molded shape. As the machine sliced through the wax, a photograph was taken one slice at a time, revealing the slowly changing outline of the shapes in the wax. Ruttmann attempted to use the machine, but he wasn't able to because the wax melted on him. Fischinger apparently made several minutes of successful tests with the curious invention.
After putting out the last two of the ever more impressive and technically accomplished Lichtspiel films in 1924 and 1925, Ruttmann went on to create some of the the landmark live-action films of the period, including his great masterpiece Berlin: Symphony of a Big City (1927), which alone would be enough to grant him a secure place in film history. He also worked on Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed, notably the opening scene. His early abstract animated films add a dimension to the picture of this impressive artist of the early period of cinema who truly tested the possibilities of the new medium.
What baffles, then, is to hear about the subsequent turn to the extreme right of this artist who up until just prior to that had epitomized the avant-garde of his country. In contrast, Fischinger continued to do everything he could to make his films and get them shown. In his book Moritz describes in delightful detail the wonderful schemes Oskar came up with to get his films shown in theaters in the increasingly difficult atmosphere of Germany before he finally left for the US in 1936. I recommend the book highly.
Note that Lichtspiel Opus I is cited as being 13 minutes long everywhere I've seen, so the thirty seconds in the above clip must be just a small excerpt. The other films appear to be complete.