Frankfurt am Main, 28 December 1887.
Goethe-Gymnasium, Abitur 1905; architectural studies in Zurich, from
1907; studied painting in Munich, 1909.
Served as artillery lieutenant on Eastern Front, World War I; suffered
nervous breakdown, sent to sanatorium until 1917.
Began filmmaking, 1919; moved to Berlin, 1923; worked with Lotte Reiniger
and Carl Koch on
The Adventures of Prince Achmed
, 1923–26; worked with G. W. Pabst and Abel Gance in Paris,
In Berlin, 15 July 1941.
Opus II, III, IV
"Der Falkentraum (Dream of Hawks)" sequence in Die Nibelungen part 1 (Lang)
Abstract Alps dream sequence for Lebende Buddhas (Wegener)
Berlin, die Sinfonie der Grossstadt ( Berlin, Symphony of a Great City )
"Tönende Welle" episode for Das weisse Stadion (Fanck)
Melodie der Welt ( World Melody ); Des Haares und der Liebe Wellen (short fiction film)
Weekend ( Wochenende )
In der Nacht ( In the Night ); Feind im Blut (documentary)
Blut und Boden
Short film incorporated into Altgermanische Bauernkultur ; Metall des Himmels ; Prologue to Triumph des Willens ( Triumph of the Will ) (Riefenstahl)
Kleiner Film einer grossen Stadt—Die Stadt Düsseldorf am Rhein ; Stadt Stuttgart, 100. Cannstatter Volksfest ; Stuttgart, die Grossstadt zwischen Wald und Reben
Schiff in Not
Henkel, ein deutsches Werk in seiner Arbeit ; Weltstrasse See—Welthafen Hamburg ; Im Dienste der Menschheit
Deutsche Waffenschmiede ( Waffenkammern Deutschland ); Deutsche Panzer; Aberglaube
Ein Film gegen die Volkskrankheit Krebs—jeder Achte . . .
Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed ( The Adventures of Prince Achmed ) (Reiniger) (collaborated on making abstract, moving backgrounds)
Kracauer, Siegfried, A Psychological History of the German Film , Princeton, New Jersey, 1974.
Russett, Robert, and Cecile Starr, Experimental Animation , New York, 1976.
Film as Film: Formal Experiment in Film, 1910–1975 , exhibition catalog, London, 1979.
Falkenberg, Paul, "Sound Montage: A Propos de Ruttmann," in Film Culture (New York), no. 22–23, 1961.
Cowie, Peter, " Berlin ," in Films and Filming (London), August 1961.
"Walter Ruttmann," in Travelling (Lausanne), Summer 1979.
Fulks, Barry A., "Walter Ruttmann, the Avant-Garde Film, and Nazi Modernism," in Film and History (Newark, New Jersey), May 1984.
Brandt, H.J., "Walter Ruttmann: Vom expressionismus zum faschismus," (three parts) in Filmfaust (Frankfurt), October/November 1985, December 1985/January 1986, and February/March 1986.
* * *
Walter Ruttmann is often associated with the films of others: he created the "Dream of the Hawks" sequence in Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen , and directed several sequences in Paul Wegener's Lebende Buddhas. Later on, he assisted in the editing of Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia. Easily his own most influential work is Berlin, Symphony of a Great City , one of the outstanding abstract documentaries of the 1920s.
Berlin is a visual essay on an average working day in the city, from dawn to the dead of night. The quiet, seemingly abandoned metropolis comes alive as a train makes its way through the suburbs, workers travel on their way to factories, the wheels of industry are set in motion, and everyday occurrences unfold in cafes and on streets. Night approaches, and Berlin becomes lit up like a birthday cake. Boys flirt with girls, chorus girls dance, an orchestra performs Beethoven. Lovers seek out privacy in a hotel. And it will all begin again with the sunrise.
Berlin is indeed a symphony, with Ruttmann stressing the movement of people and machinery in what amounts to a visual tapestry. The key is in the editing: for example, shots of people walking on a street are followed by those of cows' legs. Ruttmann makes no social commentary, as rich and poor, man and animal, exist side by side. His sole interest is the imagery, the creation of visual poetry—even when he contrasts poor children and the food in a restaurant.
Ruttman's use of montage was influenced by the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Yet while Vertov's newsreels depicted the progress of a post-Revolutionary Soviet society, the life in Berlin could just as well be the life in Brussels or Amsterdam or Paris. Ruttmann is concerned with the details of daily reality edited together to form a unified whole, but he never comments or editorializes on the lives of his subjects.
The filmmaker, who appropriately began his career as an abstract painter, preceded Berlin with a series of experimental "Opus" films. Siegfried Kracauer describes Opus I as "a dynamic display of spots vaguely recalling X-ray photographs." Additionally, Ruttmann realized that the advent of sound in motion pictures was inevitable. As a result, he attempted to attune his images to the soundtracks that he felt would ultimately outweigh visual components in importance. In World Melody , made after Berlin , music and sound effects are orchestrated to relate to the images; In der Nacht is a union of imagery and Schumann's music.
As Ruttmann did not exhibit a social conscience in his early work, it is perhaps not surprising that, by the end of his life, he had been co-opted as a propagandist. An artist whose work was initially apolitical, Ruttmann neither protested nor went into exile with the advent of National Socialism. Instead, he conformed. His last documentaries were odes to Nazism and Germany's military might.