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Absolute Advertising: Walter Ruttmann and the Weimar Advertising Film (forthcoming)

Absolute Advertising: Walter Ruttmann and the Weimar Advertising Film (forthcoming)
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  Absolute Advertising: Walter Ruttmann and the Weimar AdvertisingFilm Michael Cowan Cinema Journal, Volue 52, Number 4, Summer 2013, pp. 49-73 (Article) Published by University of Texas Press DOI: 10.1353/cj.2013.0038  For additional information about this article Access provided by McGill University Libraries (28 Aug 2013 07:21 GMT)  49 52 | No. 4 | Summer 2013    ©    2   0   1   3   b  y   t   h  e   U  n   i  v  e  r  s   i   t  y  o   f   T  e  x  a  s   P  r  e  s  s  Michael Cowan teaches lm history and European studies at McGill University. He has published articles on Germanand European cinema in journals such as Screen, October  , and  Modernism/modernity . His most recent book, Technology’s Pulse: Essays on Rhythm in German Modernism  , appeared in the Institute of Germanic and  Romance Studies’ book series at the University of London in 2012. His current research examines advertising lm and visual culture in the early twentieth century, and he is completing a monograph titled  Walter Ruttmann and theMultiplied Image . Absolute Advertising: WalterRuttmann and the WeimarAdvertising Film by M ICHAEL C OWAN Abstract: Examining Walter Ruttmann’s early animated advertisements in relation bothto his Opus  films and to contemporary advertising psychology, this article argues thatadvertising, far from representing a marginal phenomenon or a compromise of artisticintegrity, was central to Ruttmann’s professional identity as an avant-garde filmmaker. Inso doing, I also seek to reframe our understanding of abstract animation in the 1920s asa form profoundly compatible with capitalist modernity and its regulation of perception.Through their combination of abstraction and figuration, Ruttmann’s advertisementssought to incorporate contemporary theories of advertising pleasure and activate spec-tatorial competencies specific to the newly commodified spheres of post–World War IGermany. W hile designations such as “absolute lm” or “cinéma pur” once served toassociate the experimental lm culture of the 1920s with a modernist nar-rative of artistic autonomy and medium specicity, recent research hastended to sketch a more complex picture. Hardly a unied group, avant-garde lmmakers pursued a number of divergent agendas, many of them directlyengaging with forms of mass culture and deeply imbricated in the nancial andpolitical interests of their time. As Esther Leslie has shown, the emergence of ab-stract animation in the work of Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann, Lotte Reinigerand others cannot be understood without taking into account the widespread fasci-nation, among avant-garde artists and critical theorists alike, with the mass culturalform of cartoons. 1 From a nancial perspective, moreover, the very notion of an“autonomous” avant-garde lm culture appears paradoxical when one recalls thecritical role of institutions such as Hans Cürlis’s Institut für Kulturforschung  (  In-stitute for Cultural Research) and the Kulturlm-Abteilung (Section for Cultural 1 Esther Leslie, Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde  (London: Verso, 2002).  Cinema Journal 52 | No. 4 | Summer 2013 50 Films) of the Universum-Film AG (  Ufa) studio in supporting experimental lmmakersduring the 1920s. 2 Indeed, as Malte Hagener has pointed out, even such signatureevents as “Der absolute Film”—the celebrated screening of abstract animation andexperimental montage lms in Berlin in 1925—or the 1929 International Congress of Independent Film at the castle of La Sarraz, in Switzerland, were dependent on studiocollaborations and acts of patronage. 3 Hagener’s reexamination of avant-garde networks in the interwar period exempli-es a new paradigm of contextualized archival research into modernist lm, and thisreturn to the archive also goes hand in hand with a newfound interest in the long-overlooked realm of avant-garde activity in commissioned  work. In an examination of lms on architecture and urban planning by Slatan Dudow, Hans Richter, and others,Thomas Elsaesser has thus argued that research on commissioned lms also calls fora particular type of meticulous contextualization, one leading away from traditionalaesthetic and auteur-centered accounts to what he dubs the three  A s:  Auftraggeber  (the instance for which the lm was commissioned), Anlass (the occasion and purpose forwhich it was made),   and  Anwendung  (the lm’s intended use). 4 In this article, I focuson another area of commissioned lm rife with possibilities for such investigations— namely, that of product advertising.   As Ingrid Westbrock showed long ago, nearlyall the major proponents of avant-garde lm in interwar Germany—including Rutt-mann, Richter, Reiniger, Guido Seeber, and Oskar Fischinger—collaborated withadvertising producers such as Julius Pinschewer. 5 Most, if not all, of this work takesup the signature forms we have come to associate with experimental cinema, fromabstract animation (Ruttmann, Fischinger, Reiniger) to montage (Ruttmann, Seeber,Richter), which these artists placed in the service of advertisements for products asdiverse as chocolates, tires, liqueurs, owers, cigarettes, skin care, exhibitions, tour-ism, and illustrated magazines. 6 One might be tempted to read such lms as compro-mises or opportunistic means of nancing the artists’ more “serious” experimental 2 Founded in 1919 or the propagation o political and cultural ideas through animated flms, Cürlis’s institute pro-duced much o Lotte Reiniger’s early work. On the importance o the Kulturflmabteilung at the Ua or the Weimaravant-garde, see Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener, “‘6. September.’ Walter Ruttmann: 1929,” in 1929: Beiträge zur Archäologie der Medien  , ed. Stean Andriopoulos and Bernhard Dotzler (Frankurt: Suhrkamp, 2002), 327.3 Malte Hagener, Moving Forward, Looking Back: The European Avant-Garde and the Invention o Film Culture  (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007), 47, 87. On the paradoxes surrounding the La Sarraz meeting, seealso Elsaesser and Hagener, “6. September,” 316–320.4 Thomas Elsaesser, “Die Stadt von Morgen: Filme zum Bauen und Wohnen,” in Geschichte des dokumentarischen Films in Deutschland  , vol. 2, Weimarer Republik 1918–1933  , ed. Klaus Kreimeier, Antje Ehmann, and JeanpaulGoergen (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2005), 381–409. For urther discussion o this concept, see Thomas Elsaesser, “Ar-chives and Archaeologies: The Place o Non-Fiction Film in Contemporary Media,” in Films That Work  , ed. VinzenzHediger and Patrick Vonderau (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009), 23; Vinzenz Hediger and PatrickVonderau, introduction to Films That Work  , 8–16.5 See Ingrid Westbrock, Der Werbelm: Ein Beitrag zur Entwicklungsgeschichte des Genres vom Stummlm zum rühen Tonlm  (Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms, 1983).6 One can fnd parallels in Russia, where artists such as Alexander Rodchenko placed their design skills in the serviceo poster advertisements, and Dziga Vertov celebrated the power o flm advertising within the new state. See LoraWheeler Mjolsness, “Vertov’s Soviet Toys: Commerce, Commercialization and Cartoons,” Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema  2, no. 3 (2008): 247–267.  Cinema Journal 52 | No. 4 | Summer 2013 51 projects. 7 But if we adopt the contextualized approach called for by Elsaesser andothers, a different picture emerges, one suggesting—as Jacques Rancière has arguedin a different context—that modernist formalism and advertising design in fact sharedsome fundamental goals and principles. 8 In the case of lm, such an investigation canhelp us revise our understanding not only of the place of advertising lm within mod-ern lm culture but also of the aesthetics of advertising lm—and indeed of abstractanimation itself, its uses, and its possible meanings in the 1920s.In what follows, I want to pursue this argument through an analysis of one the mostprominent representatives of abstract lm: Walter Ruttmann. Examining Ruttmann’sadvertising output in both its contextual and formal dimensions, it becomes apparentthat abstract lm, far from being understood uniformly as a resistance to the cultureindustry, could appear both to lmmakers and to advertising theorists as a form rifewith nancial and industrial possibilities, a means for harnessing lm’s effect on spec-tators, and a nodal point around which a lmmaker like Ruttmann could lay claimto a certain type of professional expertise. As I show here, Ruttmann’s animated ad-vertisements draw on these understandings of abstract lm while ultimately blending abstraction and guration to stage a loss and retrieval of meaning that was part andparcel of early advertising theory itself.Certainly, Ruttmann’s own checkered career renders difcult in advance any at-tempt to mythologize him as a proponent of an autonomous avant-garde. Ruttmannhas, on the one hand, been seen as the very embodiment of Weimar formalism on ac-count of his abstract Opus lms (1921–1925), as well as his use of associative montage in  Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt  (   Berlin: The Symphony of a Great City , 1927),   which SiegfriedKracauer famously charged with having undermined the documentary role of photog-raphy by privileging ornamental patterns of movement. 9 But Ruttmann would go onafter 1933 to make numerous industrial, advertising, and propaganda lms, including a discarded prologue to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will  (1935),   glorifying the riseof the Nazi Party. Here, too, one could read Ruttmann’s post-Weimar career as a “fall”from the formal heights of his Weimar years. But it is worth questioning whether Rutt-mann’s formalism was ever really as detached as once believed. As Thomas Elsaesserand Malte Hagener remind us, even before 1933, the vast majority of Ruttmann’slmic production consisted of commissioned work, and Ruttmann never espoused apurely formalist position of lm as a disinterested or contemplative art form. 10 Writing  in 1928, he explicitly rejected any effort to close lm off from economic and political 7 This is a requent explanation o these flmmakers’ involvement in advertising. See, or example, Marion von Ho-acker, “Chronology,” in Hans Richter: Activism, Modernism and the Avant-Garde  , 257; William Moritz, Optical Poetry: The Lie and Work o Oskar Fischinger  (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 54.8 Rancière has argued that a modernist surace—whether the pages o Mallarmé’s visual poetry or the posters o PeterBehrens’s industrial trademarks—served as the setting o a shared experimentation with elementary types, whichpromised to reorder perception and redistribute the shared space in a world where the old orms o religious andcourtly ceremony no longer held sway. See Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics  , ed. and trans.Steven Corcoran (London: Continuum, 2010), 121–123; “The Surace o Design,” trans. Gregory Elliot, in The Future o the Image  (London: Verso), 91–108.9 See Siegried Kracauer, “Wir schaens,” Frankurter Zeitung  , November 17, 1927, reprinted in Jeanpaul Goergen,ed., Walter Ruttmann: Eine Dokumentation  (Berlin: Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek, 1989), 118.10 Elsaesser and Hagener, “6. September,” 344.  Cinema Journal 52 | No. 4 | Summer 2013 52 concerns, a project he equated with a return to the l’art pour l’art  doctrines of the latenineteenth century and saw as antithetical to the very nature of lm:Film is—thank God!—not simply an artistic affair, but also and above all ahuman-social affair! It is the strongest advocate for the spirit that seeks toreunite vital and artistic interests, for that spirit that today deems jazz more“important” than sonatas, posters more “important” than paintings. Art, living  art, is no longer what we learned it was in school: no longer a ightfrom the world into higher spheres, but rather an act of entering into theworld and explaining its nature.  Art is no longer abstraction, but rather the taking of positions!  Any art that does not contain a pronouncement belongs in theantiquities museum. Of course, it is a matter of indifference what this pro-nouncement applies to: feminine beauty; socialism; or technology, natureand their various imbrications. What is important is simply the fact of taking  a position. 11 Published in 1928, Ruttmann’s statement, which might appear as a rather classicalformulation of committed art, was clearly meant on one level to explain his own turnaway from abstract animation and toward documentary (indexical-photographic) im-ages with his  Berlin lm. But it also affords some insight, I believe, into a public person-ality that Ruttmann had been fashioning for some time, one in which the lmmakerparticipates in social process, placing lm aesthetics in the service of other causes,be it political propaganda (e.g., “socialism”) or product advertising (e.g., “femininebeauty”). This notion of the artist as an intervener in social life—and Ruttmann’s ownstated indifference to the object of intervention—might help to explain, more thanany specic political positions that Ruttmann may or may not have espoused, his ownwillingness to participate in both advertising and, later, propaganda. 12 Ruttmann’s advertising lms from the early 1920s offer a fascinating case studyin the formation of this new persona of the artist-expert. Ruttmann was, along withLotte Reiniger, among the rst experimental lmmakers to delve into product adver-tising, with the lm  Der Sieger  (  The   Victor   )   from 1922, an advertisement   for Excelsiortires produced by Julius Pinschewer. Advertising would go on, moreover, to form amajor part of Ruttmann’s Weimar output in the 1920s, with at least seven titles from1922 to 1929. 13   Seen against the backdrop of debates about Ruttmann’s formalism,what makes these lms particularly interesting is the way in which they reinstate gu-ration in the very medium generally associated most closely with abstract lmmaking: 11 Walter Ruttmann, “Die absolute Mode,” in Goergen, Walter Ruttmann  , 82. All translations are mine unless other-wise noted.12 Ruttmann’s insistence on the “indierence” o the object o art echoes contemporary sentiments about advertis-ing and propaganda. See Corey Ross, “Mass Politics and the Techniques o Leadership: The Promise and Perils oPropaganda in Weimar Germany,” German History  24, no. 2 (2006): 192.13 Surviving flms rom this period include Der Sieger  (1922), Das Wunder  (1922), Das wiedergeundene Paradies  (1925), Der Austieg  (1926), Spiel der Wellen  (1926), Dort wo am Rhein  (1927), and Melodie der Welt  (1929).Ruttmann also made a sound-flm advertisement or German radio titled Tönende Welle  (1928), and there werelikely several other flms that are now lost. Ruttmann’s assistant Lore Leudesdor would later recall advertising flmsthey created or grand pianos, sleeping pills, and gas actories. See Jeanpaul Goergen, “Walter Ruttmann—EinPorträt,” in Goergen, Walter Ruttmann  , 25.

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