Breve Storia del Cinema – Walter Ruttman: Berlin | Symphony of a Metropolis (1927)

Published on 28 jun. 2017

Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (German: Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt) is a 1927 German film directed by Walter Ruttmann, co-written by Carl Mayer and Karl Freund.
The film is an example of the city symphony film genre. A musical score for an orchestra to accompany the silent film was written by Edmund Meisel. 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 loose theme or impression of the city’s daily life.
Other noted examples of the genre include Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhattan (1921), Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926), Andre Sauvage’s Etudes sur Paris (1928), Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Adalberto Kemeny’s São Paulo, Sinfonia da Metrópole (1929) and Alexandr Hackenschmied’s Bezúčelná procházka (1930).
This film represented a sort of break from Ruttmann’s earlier “Absolute films” which were abstract. 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.”
These films were conceived of in the mid to late 1920’s amongst the “artistic” writers and filmmakers (usually when gathered in open coffeehouse discussions as they toiled at their craft) as an avant-garde, “new style” of early filmmaking that evolved from a script-free open narrative form that sought to show a clearer, less cluttered view of the world free from a real storyline or rigid structure. Although these films were often edited to give them some structure and a pleasing aesthetic value they evolved into what was later the “travelogue” film which also remained popular for a time. What made them very popular for urban audiences was that these films were often shot in their home cities showing easily recognizable landmarks and if one was lucky enough he or she may see someone they know up on the big screen or even get to see themselves on film.
What is critically interesting about this particular film shot in Berlin, Germany is the timeframe in which it was made; which was years before any real Nazi influence and well before Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry took over all German film production which stalled true creativity and forced the most artistic talent from the country. It is also very significant that in watching this film today that it is watched not for its onetime artistic or style value but as a type of filmed “time-capsule” an invaluable historical filmed record of the great city of Berlin in the mid to late 1920’s which no longer exists today. Over 30% of central Berlin was leveled by the end of World War II, changing the face of old Berlin forever. The Anhalter Bahnhof, a train station in central Berlin, appears in the film. So does the Hotel Excelsior, once the largest hotel in Europe, located across the street from the station and connected to it by an underground tunnel. Neither building survived the war.


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