Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Abstract German Dada Filmmakers Viking Eggeling & Walter Ruttmann

Viking Eggeling (1880-1925) had the shortest career and smallest output of any notable filmmaker. He produced only two short films only one of which survives and yet he was a founder of a new abstract way of looking at film as a work of pure art.

viking pic

Born in Sweden in 1880, Viking (also known as Victor) became orphaned at age sixteen and decided study art, moving first to Milan then to Paris before moving to Germany. He became acquainted with Amedeo Modigliani, Hans Arp and Leopold Sauvage and aligned himself with Cubism and Futurism before turning to more abstract forms like Malevich and Mondrian. Instead of painting he takes to using line drawings which can be converted to lithographs and reproduced. He began collecting his drawings of interconnected shapes and spirals onto long scrolls which could be unfurled calling them "picture rolls". Originally he was merely trying to find an efficient way to store and transport his work but gradually he started to see how these rolls could be used to study how these different shapes could relate to each other as in movement. In retrospect his "picture rolls" were similar to early crude experiments in the new medium of animation, although he may not have been aware of this at that time. Like other abstract artists such as Malevich, Mondrian and Kandinsky, his drawings had no apparent structure or perspective and were instead interconnected designs, shapes and spirals which related only to each other in a clean design resembling an mechanized version of Art Nouveau design.

During and after World War One Eggeling, like many other left-wing and avant garde artists living in Germany, went to Switzerland and became part of the new Dada movement in which his friend Hans Arp was a leading figure. He joined groups like "The Cabaret Voltaire" and "Das Leben" which advocated for Dadaist and abstract art along with socialist and pacifist ideals. In 1919 he co-founded the group "Artistes Radicaux" with Dada theorist Tristan Tzara and Hans Richter, a German artist with similar ideas to his own. Eggeling and Richter would become close friends and collaborators for the rest of Eggeling's short life. That year the two left Switzerland and returned to Germany where they joined "The November Group", another important radical arts and politics group with many connections to Dada, Futurism, Expressionism, Abstract Art and the Bauhaus design school.

viking by modigliani

Studying his picture rolls he began to hit upon the idea of transferring them to film stock, partly to make them easier to store and unroll. Inevitably he discovered, as early animators had, that when unrolled quickly they would cause the abstract shapes to relate and contrast to previous frames to create the illusion of movement. If more carefully arranged in a systematic way he would achieve full fledged animation as shapes could appear to move in space relative to each other in a fluid way.

In 1920, working with Richter, he started work on his first film by laboriously copying shapes onto approximately 5000 separate frames of film, he titled the piece "Horizontal-Vertikal-Masse". By 1921 Richter had moved onto his own similar experiments tand his one film "Rhythmus 21" and Eggeling postponed work on the piece. It is unclear if Eggeling ever actually finished the film but it was never officially shown and has since been lost. Although the film was never formally shown enough members of The November Group saw the work in progress to comment on and be influenced by it. In 1923 Eggeling decided on a more practical way of animating by using geometric shapes cut out of sheets of black paper that can be moved for each frame. Richter has already been using this method on his film however while Richter is using simple geometric shapes Eggeling designs more complex and intricate designs similar to those of his previous lithographic work. I've written an extensive article on Hans Richter here.

Viking Eggeling Extension

Besides being easier to animate the use of cutout paper shapes coincidentally mirrors similar experiments being used by Henri Matise who has had to abandon painting due to his worsening eyesight and advanced age and is using paper shapes glued to canvas backings although not in any sort of systematic way. Whether or not Eggeling and Richter were even aware of Matise's work (and vice versa) is unknown and may be purely unrelated.

He finished the film in 1924 and entitled it "Symphonie-Diagonal" and it was formally released in May 1925 at an exhibition by Dadist art collective The November Group to great acclaim and is considered to be the first piece of abstract film art. Due to the laborious shot-by-shot nature of the film method, while it took a year to finish the short film is a mere seven minutes long. Note that given the structureless nature of the film there is no way of knowing if the ending (such as it is) may have been truncated in the surviving print. The title explains his theory that moving forms can create a kind of "visual music" without reference to any sort of narrative or specific concrete image expected of film. Eggeling's film is more delicate and lyrical than Richter's somewhat more jarring films, although they basically agreed as to methods and intents. In this Eggeling differs somewhat from his Dadaist and Futurist friends who sought to shock and outrage or the Expressionists who looked to invoke deep repressed emotions.


His work has already become influential to fellow minded filmmakers, and friends, like Hans Richter and Walter Ruttman as well as later work by Frenchmen Marcell Ducamp and Man Ray. Eggeling's concept of "visual music" will briefly pass on to other German filmmakers who will entitle their films similarly including Richter's "Rhythmus 21", "Rhythmus 23" and "Rhythmus 25", Walter Rutmann's equally abstract "Lichtspiel; Opus 1" (1926) and later films "World Melody" (1930) and "Wochenende". Ruttman would later take this concept away from the purely abstract with his brilliant 1927 "absolute" film documentary "Berlin; Symphony Of A Great City". FW Murnau had also acknowledged this theme with the full title of his iconic 1922 horror classic "Nosferatu; A Symphony Of Terror".

viking by Marcel janco rumansk

Viking Eggeling however, while supportive of such ventures, will not get to see them develop nor will he get to finish his previous film because a mere sixteen days later he dies suddenly aged only 44.

Walter Ruttman;

Like Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter, Walter Ruttman (1887 - 1941) started out as an artist before moving to film. His background was more practical than the theoretical training of Eggeling and Richter with Ruttmann studying architecture as well painting and working as a commercial artist and illustrator. In spite of this his early abstract films would be less structured than those of either of his compatriots.


Again unlike Eggeling and Richter, Ruttman was not one early Dadaists or Cubists in Zurich, by the end of World War One however he had discovered abstract art and joined The November Group and inspired by the work of Eggeling and Richter he had had also discovered film as a medium. He accepted Eggeling's theories both about using film as a medium for abstract movable art as well as his idea of "visual music". He showed his first film, entitled "Lichtspiel; Opus 1" ("Light Speak; Opus 1") soon after Richter's debut in 1921.

"LICHTSPIEL: OPUS 1" (1921);

In spite of his technical training Ruttman chose slightly different methods than Eggeling and Richter. Instead of drawing or using solid shapes Ruttmann experimented with using flashes of light and shadows to play across the screen. He also played with colour instead of pure black and white. These methods meant that Ruttmann could not have the control over his moving images that Eggeling and Richter had so instead his films had a more improvised and fluid feel. This also means that his light forms would interact differently than solid shapes and lines. Not having definite borders the different flashes of colour and light would overlap and at times envelop each other.

"LICHTSPIEL: OPUS 2" (1923);

Ruttmann's method did have the benefit of being quicker and easier to use than the laborious frame by frame animation methods used by others and he was able to make several similar followups in the same vein.

"LICHTSPIEL: OPUS 3" (1924);

Having exhausted the possibilities of using flashes of light and shadow Ruttman began making less abstract films. In 1927 he collaborated with script writer Carl Mayer, who had written the scenarios for classic Expressionist films "The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari", "Genuine" and "The Last Laugh" and cameraman Karl Freund to make the classic full-length documentary "Berlin; Symphony Of A Great City". As this was not an abstract film I will not deal with it here but will save it for another article.

"LICHTSPIEL: OPUS 4" (1925);

While other Dadaists were anti-capitalists Ruttmann saw the possibilities in using film in advertisements and made a few early commercials using his flash colour animation methods to tell a more lineal story including "Das Wunder" an ad for a brand of liquor in which two arguing men drink a bottle then kiss and make up. Note; alcohol does NOT work this way in real life.

Another ad "Das Sieger" (1922) is for Excelsior-Reifen tires and features more recognizable animation. By this time he was working with Lotte Reineger, who's work this somewhat resembles.


"Spiel Der Wellen" is another short add, this time for a radio company, using Lotte Reineger's cut paper method. Note the culturally advanced notion that radio brings music from Africa to the happy listener in spite of the efforts of the conservative authorities (symbolized by a policeman), showing the Wiemar German artistic community's attitudes towards Jazz.


"Rediscovered Paradise" begins as biblical parable of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden before reuniting them using the Bird Of Peace, a dove.


Ruttmann had not abandoned his belief in "visual music" and the advent of sound films led to experimental films like "Melodie der Welt" (1929) a collage of images and sounds but no vocals to tell a story. In 1930 he moved full circle from "visual music" with "Wochenende", a film composed of solely of sounds against a blank screen and no images at all. "WOCHENENDE" (1930);

After the coming to power of the Nazi's in 1933 virtually every other figure associated with Dada, Surrealism and Cubism had their works banned and/or destroyed and fled Germany. Ruttmann however chose to stay. He had the patronage of Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl with whom he worked as a cameraman on propaganda films including the notorious "Triumph Of The Will" along with similar films of his own with titles like "Deutsche Panzer" (1940) (AKA "German Tank"). He was working on such a film at the front when he was seriously injured in 1941. He died later of his wounds at age 53.

ruttman 2


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