Berlin: Symphony of a Great City
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (German: Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt), is a 1927 German silent film directed by Walter Ruttmann, is a prominent example of the city symphony genre. As a "city symphony" film, it portrays the life of a city, mainly through visual impressions in a semi-documentary style, without the narrative content of more mainstream films, though the sequencing of events can imply a kind of "narrative" of the city's daily life. Other noted examples of the genre include Sheeler and Strand's 1921 film Manhatta, Vertov's 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera, and the 1929 Dutch film Regen directed by Mannus Franken and Joris Ivens.
This film represented a sort of break from Ruttman's earlier "Absolute" films which were abstracts. Some of Vertov's earlier films have been cited as influential on Ruttmann's approach to this film, and it seems the filmmakers mutually inspired one another, as there exist many parallels between this film and the later Man with a Movie Camera.
The film displays the filmmaker's knowledge of Soviet montage theory. Some Socialist political sympathies, or identification with the underclass can be inferred from a few of the edits in the film, though critics have suggested that either Ruttmann avoided a strong position, or else he pursued his aesthetic interests to the extent that they diminished the potential for political content. Ruttmann's own description of the film suggests that his motives were predominantly aesthetic: "Since I began in the cinema, I had the idea of making something out of life, of creating a symphonic film out of the millions of energies that comprise the life of a big city."
Berlin: Symphony of a Great City is largely an avant-garde film, and does not have a plot in the conventional sense. However, the events of the film are arranged to simulate the passage of a single day (simulated from an assemblage of film shot over the period of one year). Shots and scenes are cut together based on relationships of image, motion, point of view, and thematic content. At times, a sort of commentary can be implied, as in edits that juxtapose workers entering a factory with cattle being beaten and driven into a corral.
The five reel film is divided into five acts, and each act is announced through a title card at the beginning and end. One leitmotiv that is present in all of the acts, which largely connects them, is the theme of the train and streetcar. Much of the motion in the film, and many of the scene transitions, are built around the motion of trains and streetcars.
I Akt: The first act starts the day, beginning with calm waters and a graphic representation of a sunrise. Railroad crossing gates are lowered, a train travels through down the tracks and proceeds into the city, ending with a graphic of the "Berlin" sign approaching. The film then transitions through calm and empty streets, to the gradual process of the city waking up. At first, only objects are seen, such as a bit of paper blowing through an empty street, but soon a few people arise, then more are about, and the activity builds to crowds of workers going to work, pedestrians, busy streetcars, trains etc. A hand manipulates a lever, effectively turning on the city, and factory machinery springs to life. Glass bulbs are produced, sheets of metal are cut, molten steel is poured, smokestacks are seen against the sky, and the first act ends.
II Akt: The second act shows more of the general life of the city, beginning with the opening of gates, shutters, windows, doors, people busy cleaning, fruit carts, children going to school. Mailmen start their day, shops open. Different classes of people are seen, some mounting busses and streetcars, while wealthy men enter chauffeured private cars. The city is bustling with activity. Office workers prepare to start their day, as roll top desks open, people set out their pens, paper, open books, remove the cases from typewriters, and a bank of typists quickly erupt into activity. Keys on keyboards spiral around one another, and a montage of a spinning hypnotist's wheel, monkeys biting one another, telephone operators, machinery, and dogs fighting is mixed into the general busy work of the office, building quickly to a crescendo... phone receivers hang up. End of the second act.
III Akt: The third act shows more busy street life, and a variety of people of different classes going about their business. There are industrial workers, construction workers, salespeople, shoppers, etc. A fight between two men breaks out briefly, but is quickly stopped by bystanders and a policeman. There are many crowds, a father and bride arriving at a wedding, some flirtation between people on the street, a coffin on a hearse seen through the windows of a streetcar, a military leader is greeted by marchers with banners, an angry protestor lectures a crowd, there are a few glimpses of racial minorities, lots of workers, and plenty of chaotic activity. Trains, trains, trains, and several newspapers held up for display, dissolving over one another, bringing us to the end of the third act.
IV Akt: The fourth act starts with a lunch break. 12:00 is shown on a clock, and the spinning wheels of a factory slow to a stop. A variety of workers leave their workplaces. People start to eat and drink, and animals feed. Some poignant transitions intercut a wealthy diner with a lion feeding on meat from a bone, and hungry street kids embracing their mother clothed in rags sitting out on the steps. Many types of people eat, and some rest. Some poor folk sleep on benches or wall ledges, while activity goes on around them. Animals are seen resting, as an elephant lays down, a work dog tethered to a cart lies on the pavement, various zoo animals loll about. Idle kids play. Finally, a demanding diner in a cafe taps his spoon on a sugar bowl, and it awakens the city again, as the animals rise, then factory machinery starts up, and workers return to work. A paper press churns out newspapers, and a man reads a paper which is held up for our view... words leap up prominently from the page, first "krise" (crisis), then "mord" (murder), "heirat" (marriage), and then three times "geld... geld... geld" (money, money, money). A storm of sorts arises, with the montage of revolving doors, wind, roller coasters and trains, rain, cyclones of leaves, a woman peering frantically over a rail into water, cut against P.O.V.s of roller coasters, churning water, a crowd looking down, a splash, eyes, fighting dogs, etc. The chaos eventually subsides, and the day winds down, as workers finish their day, and recreation begins. Children play in the ocean, boats come out to race, and many kinds of races and games are displayed, finally concluding with a few romantic couples on park benches and the fall of night.
V Akt: The fifth and final act is devoted to the people's entertainment at night. House lights come on, then many advertising signs are lit, and people go out to the theater. Curtains open on a variety of performances, including showgirl burlesques, trapeze artists, jugglers, singers and dancers. Audiences gather in a movie theater, and a brief glimpse is seen of Chaplin's distinctive feet and cane at the bottom of a movie screen. As people leave a theater show, some sexuality is implied by a man's hand caressing a woman's bare arm as they enter a taxi, and her bare calf and frilly skirt are displayed. They pull away, ignoring a child beggar, and a lit up hotel sign is next displayed. Another montage of entertainments includes ice shows and hockey, skiers, sledders, indoor races, boxing and dance contests. The leitmotiv of streetcars continues, and rail workers continue to work through the night. People drink, flirt, and dance in beer halls and cocktail lounges, while card games and roulette are played. The city starts to spin wildly, transitions into a firework display, and thus ends the final act and the film.
According to Ruttman, a "hypersensitive film stock" was developed for use in this film, to solve lighting difficulties during night scenes.