On July 20, The New Bauhaus will be released online through the popular video-on-demand platforms AppleTV, GooglePlay, and Vimeo. The documentary, which ran successfully on the film festival circuit since 2019, focuses on the life and legacy of Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). Moholy taught at the Bauhaus in Germany before leaving the country because of Nazi persecution in the 1930s. His journey took him to the United States and to Chicago, where he led what became known as “The New Bauhaus” movement in art and design.
I spoke with producer, cinematographer, and designer Petter Ringbom about his part in the development of the new documentary, which contains archival footage and brand new interviews. Ringbom’s previous feature documentaries as a director are Shield and Spear and The Russian Winter, which screened at numerous film festivals. The filmmaker has also been a Film Independent Fast Track Fellow, a Gotland Film Lab resident at the Ingmar Bergman Estate, and a Berlinale Talent.
What’s a lesson you learned early in art school or in your career that stuck with you?
As I think about this film, I did not necessarily know about Moholy much super early. I studied art in New York at The Cooper Union. I had an art history teacher, [the late] art historian Dore Ashton. She was a big personality. She was the only person who was still allowed to smoke in the school and during class. This was in the 1990s. I’m sure now no one would be allowed to smoke.
Anyway, she was a huge fan of Moholy-Nagy. I think what she stressed about him, which was in our film, was two things: one was his innovative approach and being one of the people that brought modernism to art and design. He was definitely someone who had an impact that’s measurable. The other thing she really liked about him and that I could connect with was the broad approach – in layman’s terms – in the ability to be curious, willing to experiment, and work across multiple mediums and not think about medium as the most important thing. Also, you never really dig so deep that you just become an expert in one thing. He was constantly pushing against that sort of focus.
That always resonated with me because I don’t think I am an expert on anything. I am pretty good at a lot of things. When you make films, at least the way I make films, that is very important. I don’t make films with a crew of hundreds where everyone has a very defined role. I make films with a crew of at the most 10 people. If you look at the whole production, maybe it’s 20 people that touch the film in various ways. Everyone ideally that is involved in it will be able to work across multiple roles.
In The New Bauhaus film, I was a producer. I run a production company, Opendox, which produced the film with a very practical and creative kind of producing, along with fundraising. I was cinematographer. I also did all the graphic design and animation. Those were my main roles there, and that is sort of how I work on everything. That perhaps is a challenge, but I don’t think about it that way because that’s how I like to work.
Going back to the original question, that is something I took with me from art school and it directly connects to Moholy-Nagy. He had that ability to work across many mediums.
In the process of making the film, what was the biggest challenge you encountered?
Well, the timeline was probably the biggest challenge. We started started this film in 2017. We premiered in 2019. It’s a two-year timeline, which is quick for how I work. I wish we’d had the foresight to start it earlier. We had to finish in 2019 because that was the anniversary of the Bauhaus and had to have a premiere set with the Architecture and Design Film Festival. We knew had to have a film ready.
I think it’s great. I don’t think the film has suffered in that timeline, but ideally I would have had the film ready earlier in 2019 and ideally I would have been able to spend a little more time in the days of research and development. We had to very quickly jump into producing the film. Time is probably the biggest challenge, which is not unusual.
I was impressed with how much archival footage and material is referenced in the documentary. Did you have a lot of material to go through before you narrowed it down?
He was a famous artist in his field. There are a lot of things written about him and his contemporaries at the Bauhaus. There was a lot to sift through. That goes back to the time issue. You wish you had more time to read everything. We worked with archival producers on this film. It’s a must for a film that uses that much archival material. If you have a tight timeline, you definitely need archival producers, who are experts on finding, sourcing, and licensing things.
Could you speak more to the collaborative process that you had with the director, Alysa Nahmias, and the inputs you found valuable for the vision of the film?
Alyssa and I have worked together before. We’ve known each other and we were friends for a long time. She produced a film that I directed called Shield and Spear. On this film, we switched roles. I felt she was better suited to direct this one because of her background and her interests. We already had a working relationship that we could rely on. We worked very closely, especially during all the shoots since I’m cinematographer and producer. I was sitting right next to her and we could have that immediate working relationship that could be helpful for interviews. I could sit there and remind her of questions she was supposed to ask. She could guide how things were shot. It was pretty automatic because we work well together in those settings.
Was there something new that you enjoyed learning about Moholy during this experience?
I think what stood out to me the most is the passion that his old students had around him and the impact that he had on them. For the few people that were still alive who had him as a teacher, this is going back more than half a century. They spoke about him as if it happened yesterday, which I think was pretty amazing. These are people in their 90s. Their recollection of those days was so vivid, as you see in the film. I don’t know that I have those kinds of vivid memories of my art and design school experience.
Then it also speaks to the broader impact that Moholy had, which, as we argue in the film, is that it’s his impact on art and design education that is the most lasting legacy. All these people, not only did they become professional artists and designers, but they also taught and continued his legacy.
What was it like conducting the interviews with his daughter, Hattula, and getting to follow her around?
With most people when you interview them and you come into their homes, there is always a process of getting to know each other. A lot of times as filmmakers, I feel like we have to gain people’s trust, that they feel comfortable and are in capable hands. That happens every time and it certainly happened with her. We are definitely not the first people who have come to interview her about her father’s work. She’s used to it and she’s also probably used to people coming and going. Once you’ve proved your worth, she is incredibly generous, open, and natural with the camera and with us. It was great.
How would you describe your approach to the cinematography?
We basically took a cue from [Moholy]. We wanted to approach it according to the lessons that he gave his students. One of his early photography lessons is going out into the city and finding these moments of magic in the mundane, like a puddle of water or a reflection of light on a wall. In these things that are always happening around us, can you find the unique and magic beauty in these moments? That was our approach and our goal through the cinematography. Interviews are different and are more about static compositions.
This documentary was made pre-Covid. How do you see Moholy’s approach in helping us during Covid and in the post-Covid world?
He lived through two world wars and Nazi persecution. He had to flee one country after another, constantly looking for funding, ways to make a living, and people to embrace his work. He was successful at it, but he constantly had to move around. Then ultimately, facing illness and through all of these challenges, he was optimistic and creative. He found his escape through the creative work.
That’s something I definitely thought about during the early days of Covid. Every generation before has gone through extreme challenges. In some ways, we’re definitely living through turbulent times but we can look back, see what people lived through and what they were able to do and achieve in those circumstances. I took a bit of solace in that.
As we were releasing The New Bauhaus [we had to] shift our release approach, like every film project premiering in those early Covid days. We had dozens of festivals lined up. We went into more of a digital release approach that ultimately worked well for us.