By Caleb Milligan
Cowan, Michael. Walter Ruttmann and the Cinema of Multiplicity. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014. $50.
Michael Cowan’s highly engaging monograph on Walter Ruttmann is a necessary addition to the critical conversation surrounding the enigmatic filmmaker. In Cowan’s own words, “[Ruttmann] has never been the object of a book-length study in English” (11), therefore his work to bring Ruttmann in all his avant-garde controversy to an English-reading audience is laudable and well done—if not what readers may expect.
Cowan offers a new perspective on Ruttmann’s filmic career that takes the complexities of discussing the filmmaker full on. He sets out not to write what he considers a well-covered argument that only engages with Ruttmann’s strictly artistic work, such as his Opus films (1921-25), of course Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), and Acciaio (1933). He instead offers new interest to the perception of Ruttmann by disagreeing with the prevailing sentiment that Ruttmann’s advertising work, indeed the majority of his output, constitutes an artistic compromise on Ruttmann’s part. Cowan’s cogent argument makes great effort, in fact, to claim that his advertising work is just as artistically motivated and just as worthy of critical study. He furthermore grapples impressively with Ruttmann’s propaganda filmmaking for the Nazis with a sobering critical stance, here too disagreeing with an optimistic general consensus that saw Ruttmann as secretly undermining the work he produced for the Nazi party through avante-garde technical expression. He argues rather that Ruttmann was just consistently good at his job, even suggesting that Ruttmann’s Weimar career prepared him stylistically for the work he would do for the Nazis. What readers are left with is the fully complex and contradictory filmmaker as he has not been approached before: a largely by-commission director who churned out work through the dramatic shift from the Weimar Republic to the Nazi period.
The book’s major argument that Ruttmann was always a director interested in conceptualizing the masses through his films is well constructed. Rather than exhaustively document every film he made one-by-one, Cowan opts away from simple biography and toward a model covering major overtures of Ruttmann’s career in order to shape the point he reinforces throughout each chapter. In the first half of the book, Cowan makes a strong case for legitimizing the director’s advertising work by thoroughly analyzing them directly alongside his more well-known artistic work. After the introduction, for example, his first chapter utilizes Ruttmann’s Opus films to open up a discussion of his animated advertisements. The second chapter historicizes montage by boldly giving equal weight to Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and Melody of the World (1929), a film advertising a cruise, as commissioned by the shipping line HAPAG. In the second half of the book, Cowan offers a thorough and uncompromising consideration of Ruttmann’s shift from Weimar avant-garde filmmaker to Nazi propaganda director. Beginning with the third chapter, he analyzes Ruttmann’s Weimar hygiene film on the spread of syphilis, Enemy in the Blood (1930) in tandem with his Nazi hygiene film on the patriotic importance of cultivating rural society, Blood and Soil (1933) to embrace the complexity of Ruttmann as the same director of both films that has somehow notably changed in the way he approaches managing the masses. Continuing with the fourth chapter, Cowan analyzes Ruttmann’s “steel films,” commissioned work in praise of the metal as a German point of industrial pride and as crucial to the war effort, all in order to make the poignant analogy that his films were now molding the masses just like the steel they depicted. Concluding with an afterword that resists condemning Ruttmann for making films for the Nazis even as it makes the case he did so willingly, Cowan leaves readers with a difficult image of an artist worthy of reconsideration, even with all the artistic and moral complications that entails.
This book is largely a success in its critical sophistication, weighty argument, and exciting departure. It is not without its weaknesses, however. Out of Cowan’s final control is the fact that his book suffers from hasty editing that leaves readers distracted by at least a few typos per chapter. What Cowan could have curbed though is the unfortunate irony that he proves too thorough, leading to several moments where his book feels needlessly repetitive. That said, if a book stumbles in attempting to be as comprehensive as possible, it is a worthy trip. Michael Cowan has published an exciting and altogether convincing complication to the critical appraisement of Walter Ruttmann.