The four-part Lichtspiel: Opus was an early film career high for Walter Ruttman, an artist with a background in painting, graphic design, and architecture, and a future in Nazism (he supported Hitler and assisted Leni Riefenstahl with conceiving Triumph of the Will.) Ruttman was committed to a sanitarium after suffering a nervous breakdown on the Eastern Front during World War I. Not long after being released, he turned his sights to abstract animation, cementing his place as an early innovator of the form. Throughout the four Opus films, Ruttman utilizes tinting, toning, coloring of emulsions, and contemporary Oskar Fischinger’s wax-slicing methods, creating images intended to provoke the kind of emotional responses that one might experience while listening to music.
Dadaist Hans Richter claimed his Rhythmus 21 was the first abstract film. Even without arguing for the live-action work of the Futurists, it’s likely that Richter was still beaten to the punch by Ruttman, whose Opus I was the first abstract animation to be screened publicly. Both explore the visual possibilities of shapes moving against a black background, but Ruttman’s approach is decidedly less crude than Richter’s, actually making use of a variety of colors, textures, and movements. And as the series progresses, Ruttman’s skills only become further refined. One could easily draw a line from the Opus films to the ’60s work of artists such as Jordan Belson and the Whitney brothers, not to mention decades’ worth of generic screensavers and media player visualizers.