Lost in the Movies: Berlin: Symphony of a Great City

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City

For those who have seen Dziga Vertov's manic masterpiece first, Walter Ruttman's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1926) will evoke inevitable comparisons to 1929's Man With a Movie Camera. And those comparisons may redound to Vertov's favor, but they are at least somewhat unfair. For one thing, quite obviously Berlin came first and so, in part, set the template for Movie Camera. Furthermore, the films have unique and divergent traits to offer: Berlin its own titular city, Movie Camera (if I'm not mistaken) both Moscow and Odessa. Berlin has a traditional structure, guiding us through a single day in its metropolis' life, while Movie Camera is not so clearly chronological - its journey leads deeper into the thickets of dizzying reflexivity rather than along any clear time map. Berlin offers a document of a capitalist society, Movie Camera a communist one. But of course, there are a great many similarities between the two, comparisons are inevitable, and yes, Movie Camera is the superior film.

Still, Berlin is worth seeing, and aside from its precursor status, has its own compelling threads to snatch at. Among others: the pseudo-documentary was shot a half-decade before Germany's descent into fascism (not "twenty years before the Nazi occupation" - ?!? - as the Netflix envelope erroneously claims.) Though I did not find this as distracting as I thought I would, there is certainly an unintended foreboding subtext to be extracted by those of morbid mindset. How many of these factory workers, dining bourgeoisie and, especially disturbing, smiling children will turn on friends and neighbors in the next ten years, marching through the streets with ecstatic menace, burning down Jewish shops, lending their hand to the till of mass murder? Berlin's (and Berlin's) very averageness, its mundane details of daily life, become especially challenging in this regard: could the same happen to us?

Also fascinating from eighty years hence are the glimpses of Weimer Germany, the decadent state which existed prior to Hitler's totalitarianism. We see this not so much in the political tenor - though there is a segment of the movie which focuses on politicians and marching troops (including what appears to be Hindenberg - was he already president then?). It comes out more in the shots of glitzy evening society and energetic nightlife which Ruttman allows to trickle forth here and there, until the film is taken over by a deluge of wild Weimer entertainment. True, this was the same Jazz Age spirit which swept all of Western society, but in Germany it had a harder, more baroque edge which Ruttman evokes in his lightning montage, focus on hard, shiny, metallic surfaces, and anthropomorphic visual analogies (he cuts frequently from peculiar-looking - and peculiar-behaving - people to their animal analogues).

Indeed, let it be said that formally Ruttman is no slouch. If the film is not as tight and dazzling as Movie Camera, it is nonetheless inventive and dynamic. Ruttman chooses to open Berlin with a montage representing a racing train. Once it pulls into a Berlin station, the tempo suddenly slows - and I still feel that it may have been a mistake to introduce us into the film on this high note; the languor of the empty streets at dawn seems a more appropriate initiation to our day in Berlin. Nonetheless, while it's happening, the train montage is thrilling, a further evocation of the curious and appealing relationship between the train and the cinema (something almost elemental seems to have been lost when trains slipped off the screen) and a reminder of the thrilling geometry of Ruttman's excellent avant-garde animated short Opus 1.

There are further reminders throughout the film, and often these moments are Berlin's strongest; as a geometrist and fetishist of hard-edged industrial beauty, Ruttman has few peers, but he does not have the same touch with people that Vertov does, exemplified as the somewhat distanced observation of his camera (uneasily interrupted and coupled with obviously staged sequences, such as a street fight and a suicide) demonstrates. One sequence in which the photography does seem to relax and approach its subject more intimately deals with street children, particularly a little girl fixated on pulling her mini-stroller up cobblestone steps, while a couple well-dressed tots arrogantly taunt her.

Watching these moments, I was haunted by a poignant fact which my initial viewing of Movie Camera (particularly the beach scene) brought to mind: virtually all the people must inevitably be dead today. This is a very recent problem - even a decade or two ago, there were still lingering geriatrics born in the 19th century. Today, even those born after World War I are octogenarians, and an entire era is withering away. And so this celebration, this "symphony," becomes in addition, an elegy. Even without the knowledge of what darkness lies ahead for this particular city, one can view this film as a monument to the hidden transience and unexpected mortality of daily life, and to the dignity, excitement, and even immortality which the home movie and the cinema can bestow.



A few quick points on your review...

I saw this movie and MOVIE CAMERA in the same week about 5 or 6 years ago. I loved them both, but you're correct about MOVIE CAMERA being the superior film.

I find it haunting as well, that those very people were watching became the biggest villains of the 20th century. I was also, just the other, thinking about how most people from these old films are now dead.

Photography has only been around for about 150 years, filmmaking even less. How will people feel about these movies in the next 200 years? It'll be like looking into a time machine in a way.

Joel Bocko said...

I don't really like to think about that - I prefer thinking of movies as something in the just-attainable distant past, like they were in the 90s but aren't really anymore today. (How many people, out of the billions on earth were alive before the Lumieres premiere? One? Two? I shudder...)

How strange for the coming generations to be able to peer into the past, before the great, great grandparents were even alive, and see people moving about and talking. Will it change their conception of history? Imagine being able to watch videos of the American Revolution!

But I also have a hard to adjusting to changing demographics. To me, young people will always mean Generation X, the middle-aged will always be Baby Boomers, and if you're old it means you were around for World War II. Doesn't it seem weird that teenagers now can have grandparents - not just a few bohemians here and there, but on a mass scale - who smoked dope, listened to hard rock, and rolled naked in the mud at Woodstock?

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