During the war years, Walter Ruttmann made propaganda films for the Nazis. The only reason I jump into this essay with that troubling fact is that most summaries of the German experimental filmmaker’s storied life try to slip it in at the end, as if they’re saying it under their breath. His work for the Third Reich raises a lot of questions, both biographical and philosophical, among them why Ruttmann didn’t flee the country like so many of his peers, how much culpability filmmakers and artists who glorified Hitler share in his crimes, and can a work of art be formally, aesthetically appealing even if it’s content is abhorrent. Due the limits of space and to preserve my own peace of mind, we’re not going to go too deep into those hefty topics (and besides there’s plenty of ink spilled over them already in regards to Leni Riefenstahl, whose Triumph of the Will Ruttmann co-edited). Instead, it seems a better use of our time to look further back, before Hitler’s sweeping rise to power, when Ruttmann was making a very important (and very un-fascist) series of films.
Completed between 1921 and 1925, Ruttmann’s four-part Opus series bears little resemblance to anything that can be considered propaganda, or even reality. It’s a work of total abstraction, arguably the first of its kind, abandoning representation in an effort to find a truer form of cinema, one more in line with the way music functions rather than trying to shoe-horn the medium into the conventions of theatre and literature. “You can gather together the best mimes in the world,” he wrote about narrative film in the silent age, “You can let them perform in the most exquisite paradise, you can adorn the programs of your film dramas with the names of the most eminent poets – Art will never result that way. A work of art will result only if it’s born of the possibilities and demands of its material.” To Ruttmann, the material of film, the celluloid itself, demanded not storylines but symphonies, made with light instead of sound. Although it would probably be more accurate to say symphonies made with light and sound, since Opus, unlike many of films by his contemporaries, boasts a score composed specifically to accompany it.
Tinting film was a common practice long before color stock was invented, and though it was an expensive process, Ruttmann meticulously explored the technique, laboriously layering multiple colors to create a psychedelic fantasia, one so complex that striking a print suitable for projection meant first carefully assembling hundreds bits of film. Before turning to cinema, Ruttmann was a painter and graphic designer, and his sense of color and space suggests abstract art thrust into dizzying motion. Writing that one must “Work with film as though using a paintbrush and paint”, he often did just that, applying paint directly onto the already colored celluloid. Perhaps to distance his work from the psychological dramas of the German Expressionist films then en vogue in Berlin, Opus was not even quite presented as “films”, in fact, each part bears the label “Lichtspiel”, which roughly translates “light-play” or “light-show”. In all honesty, between the music and the trippy visuals, the screenings held by Ruttmann and his “Color Music” peers in Berlin’s “Absolute film” scene don’t seem to be too far off from later happenings like Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests or Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, especially since some of them threw multiple film and slide projectors into the mix. A lot more film theory and a lot less LSD perhaps, but then again, drugs and debauchery weren’t exactly in short supply during Berlin’s “Golden Twenties” either.
It was multimedia art before there was a word for it, born out of an attitude among the city’s intellectuals and avant-garde that the new media channels created by the relatively recent proliferation of cinema and radio could be used to mass communicate radical artistic ideas. Indeed, Ruttmann himself went on to create feature length films that met audiences halfway by being at least slightly more direct and representational, as with 1927’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, which single handedly created the “city symphony” genre, as well as original compositions for radio, like the ahead-of-its-time sound collage “Weekend”, thought lost until a recording surfaced in New York in 1978 (and which later inspired a remix album featuring versions by DJ Spooky and To Rococo Rot). In a cruel irony, the potential artists saw in these new methods of mass communication was about to be harnessed, and not in a good way, as Hitler transforms the entire German media into a hideous brainwashing tool, most notably by nationalizing the country’s largest film concern, UFA, and handing control of the nation’s screens over to propaganda minister and evil-piece-of-human-shit Joseph Goebbels.
And Ruttmann works for them. As the political and social climate in Germany grew more menacing, many in the film industry fled the country, with quite a few of them, including Fritz Lang and Douglas Sirk, ending up influential in Hollywood, but not Ruttmann, who stuck around and had a significant hand in creating the most notorious Nazi propaganda film of all time before dying in 1941, four years before Berlin fell to the Allies. There’s no apologizing for his being a cog in a machine that murdered millions of people, but judging solely from the films he made free of the influence of the Third Reich, he doesn’t seem like much of a hardliner. His traumatic stint in World War I was followed by a nervous breakdown so it would seem doubtful he’d be excited at the prospect of another go around, and though there is an unfortunate jazz age African stereotype in a film from this early era, 1926’s Spiel der Wellen (included here), the overall attitude of the short seems more admiring than xenophobic or racist. As writer and critic Rob Edelman put it, “An artist whose work was initially apolitical, Ruttmann neither protested nor went into exile with the advent of National Socialism. Instead, he conformed.” Rather pathetically, in the end, its plain cowardice and complacency, not conviction or belief that eternally derailed what had once been a courageous career.