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Berlin: Symphony of a City

by Allan James Thomas

Berlin: Symphony of a City (Berlin: die Sinfonie der Grostadt)
(1927, Germany, 50 mins, B&W, silent)
Source: CAC Prod. Company: Fox-Europa Prod: Karl Freund Dir & Editor: Walther
Ruttman Scr: Ruttman, Karl Freund, based on an idea by Carl Mayer
Photography: Reimar Kuntze, Robert Baberske, Lszlo Schffer, Karl Freund

How to watch a film like Berlin: Symphony of a City, seventy-three years after it was
made? The obvious temptation is to view it as an historical document, an insight into the
patterns of life and living in Berlin in the late '20s - certainly the film lends itself to such
a viewing. It offers us a literal 'day in the life of', bringing us into Berlin by train as the
sun rises, and following the life of the city as it wakes, goes to work through the
morning and into the afternoon, moves from work to play, to sport and dancing and
drinking deep into the night. It leaps swiftly from rich to poor, from man to machine and
back again, from the grandeur of the city-scape to the sewers beneath, and always
movement, movement in every way that can be found. Trains, trams, horses, bustling
crowds, spinning wheels and fairground rides, boat races, horse races, dog races,
dancing and pounding machines, always we see the dynamism of a city in motion. It is
an extraordinarily beautiful film, and its distance from us in time and in experience only
emphasises that beauty. Like a carved miniature, it offers us a model of Berlin brought
close and intimate, and yet viewed from across an unbridgeable gap.
At least part of this gap is a consequence of the sheer aestheticism of the film itself; we
see its beauty before we see anything else. Documentary makers from John Grierson to
Jean Rouch and beyond have warned of the dangers of the beautiful image within
documentary film. In an article written in the mid '30s (1), Grierson picks out Berlin in
particular as an example of what documentary should not be. Despite the beauty and
power of its images, and the dynamism of its editing (which he acknowledges), for
Grierson, Berlin ultimately fails to show us anything of any import:
For all its ado of workmen and factories and swirl and swing of a great
city, Berlin created nothing. Or if it created something, it was that
shower of rain in the afternoon. The people of the city got up splendidly,
they tumbled through their five million hoops impressively, they turned
in; and no other issue of God or man emerged than that sudden
besmattering spilling of wet on people and pavements.
In its emphasis on the beautiful and the visually dramatic to the exclusion of any 'issue'
as such (unemployment for instance), the film, for Grierson at least, shirks its social
responsibilities; we come out no better informed or educated than we were before.

Is this a fair critique of the film? Certainly there would seem to be at least the seeds of
political analysis at work in Berlin, in its constant juxtaposition of the everyday life of
the worker and that of the wealthy elite. It's certainly tempting to read such comparisons
as illustrations of the unfair consequences of an unequal distribution of wealth. In some
cases the contrasts and analogies drawn through editing resemble something one might
see in a film by Eisenstein or Vertov; for example, a series of shots of rich and poor at
their respective lunches are interspersed with shots of lions tearing up a leg of raw meat.
One could easily imagine an Eisenstein forming a metaphorical juxtaposition with these
shots suggesting that the rich devour the poor like ravenous lions.
However, although the linking of the scenes does seem to suggest that an analogy or
metaphor is being drawn, it is ambiguous whether it is the poor or the rich who are
being compared to a ravenous lion. Indeed, it seems that if there is a point being made,
it is that rich and poor are all the same in their primal needs and desires. What it shows
us is not the contrast between the conditions of rich and poor, but their basic similarity.
For all of the juxtapositions of rich and poor and their respective lifestyles we find in
Berlin, the ultimate effect is not to oppose the two in a dialectic of class struggle, but to
suggest their ultimate unity as differentiated parts unified by their common membership
of the same organic whole, that is to say, Berlin itself (4). One cannot agree with
Grierson when he argues that Berlin shows us nothing, that it is purely an aesthetic
experience; it offers us a dynamic expression of the city in motion, the interaction of its
parts as they make up the whole that is Berlin.
The problem is that the Berlin if offers us is a profoundly ahistorical one; by subsuming
any conflict between its opposing elements to their ultimate unity as part of the whole, it
suggests that ultimately there can be no change. The parts that make it up can come and
go, but Berlin will always be Berlin. If, from where we are now, we can view it
'historically', it is not because it offers us a snapshot of a time passed; it offers us no
more than a false unity, forged by the subsumption of difference (class, race, religion,
politics) to the apparent unity of the whole. Like the carved miniature I evoked earlier, it
holds us at a distance, the better to appreciate it's intricate beauty. If we see 'history' in
the film, viewing it seventy-three years later, it is because we see in that intricate beauty
the traces of the conflict to come which will shatter the false whole, unravel the city, and
the state, altogether; the soldiers marching the streets in those distinctive helmets which
will march across Europe, the Jews walking freely, the children who in 15 years or so
will be herding those same Jews into the concentration camps. We can watch it, not as a
snapshot of what has been, but as an uncanny, ghostly foreshadowing of what will be...

Walter Ruttmann
Walter Ruttmann was born in Frankfurt in 1887 and died in Berlin in 1941.
With a background as a painter, filmaker, a cellist and violinist he made Weekend in
1928. The work was commissioned by Hans Flesch, director of the Berlin Radio Hour.
Flesch also commissioned Friderich Walther Bischoff to create the sound symphony
Hello! You're Tuned to Radio Earth, that was broadcasted the same year. Both artists
used the Tri-Ergon process; implying recording and editing on film, enabeling them to
cut and mix their material in a smooth and elegant way. And what characterize both
works is this concern with exploiting the aesthetic and technical opportunities of time
baced media.
The year before making Weekend Walter Ruttmann had produced the experimental
documentary Berlin-Symphony of a Great City where he also utilized an exquisite use of
montage. His experience with painting and animated films had made him sensitive to
the importance of visual rythm in the plastic arts. Already in 1921 Ruttmanns abstract
animated film Lightplay opus 1 was shown accompanied with a live, synchronos
musical score, composed especially for the film. This is thought to be the very first
screening of its kind. In his article The Filmed Symphony, published in Berliner Tagblatt
in 1921, Leonhard Adelt describes Lightplay opus 1 as "a sound painting where the tone
color seemed litterary to fulfill the meaning, content and character of the musical
piece(...). Ruttmann's painterly paraphrases of the score, full of imagination and on the
wings of his fantasy, conjures up musical associations, thus communication, his
experience in a painterly as well as musical way, just like the dance, whose twodimmentional companion-piece the music-film is".
Ruttmann was in a mileau of painters, poets and musicians who saw in the new media a
possibility to expand the limits of their occupation. To them the obstacle to a direct
presentation was that fine arts remain closely tied to frozen form and that music, as a
rhytmical sequence of sound, is movement, seemingly making these two media
mutually exclusive. Through the moving picture this antithesis was no bridged. They
described their abstract films as visual music, seeking to achieve a similar physical
experience in visuals as in music. The overall idea of their works was also linked to the
consept of the absolute film; the idea of a universial language of abstaract images. In
one way these visual moves could be seen as showing the structure of music. Perhaps in
line with Kandinskis thoughts of the synthesis between color, form and sound as
revealed in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, first published in 1911, or in the
search of universiality in the new language