Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927) Director: Walter Ruttman
Some may call it avant-garde and excessive, while others hail it as a marvel, Berlin is the quintessential “city symphony” film, of which there were a variety of other minor films made in Paris and Manhattan. In my view, Berlin is a brilliant movie offering a striking panorama of daily life in Berlin in the 1920s. The ethos of this film is to holistically capture a city, as much as possible, the goal is to leave an impression of daily life in a city. In some ways it hearkens back to Soviet montage theory. The film serves as a kind of time capsule which allows us to glimpse daily life in in Weimar Germany, between the wars and shortly before the terror of Nazism. Walter Ruttman was an experimental German filmmaker who made several avant-garde movies, before completing his magnum opus. After the rise of the Nazis, he went to the frontline as a photographer, but he sustained injuries that eventually killed him. He is best remembered today for Berlin.
In Act I of this plotless film, we find ourselves boarding a train, experiencing motion, as we rush by open fields and small suburban homes. Gradually we approach our station. It is early morning and very few people are out in the streets of Berlin. The director lets us see beauty (architecture, water, quiet and empty streets) and also grit (birds chewing on a dead rodent, sewage water, garbage and so on). Gradually we start to see people emerge, cars and trains, and factories as the machinery of the city comes to life.
In Act II, windows open and daily life takes hold -businessmen walk about the streets checking the time, schoolgirls walk to school, shops open along the streets. Typists move quickly, feet scatter over stairs, phones ring and operators answer.
In Act III, we move further along on the metro to find construction sites. Traffic stops slow the pace of business, yet make the streets seems congested and busy. We see shots of electrical grids, vagrants and police officers.
In Act IV, the clock signals it’s time to stop work. Men go to drink beer. Horses eat their meals. Restaurants begin to fill. A boatsman pushes his boat along the river. Children play in the streets and in the park. Older gentlemen sit for coffee, and newspapers begin to print and distribute. The tempo grows chaotic as someone’s hat blows away and people ride a rollercoaster. The winds come in and it starts to rain.
In Act V, citizens enjoy entertainment and leisurely activities -the circus acrobats, a marching band, roller skating, dancing, Far off in the distance lights flash, what appears to be fireworks, and a lighthouse circulates. This concludes the film.