Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grossstadt

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(Berlin: Symphony of a City)

Germany, 1927

Director: Walter Ruttmann

Production: Fox-Europa-Film; black and white, 35mm; running time: 53 minutes; length: 1440 meters. Released September 1927. Filmed in Berlin.

Producer: Karl Freund; screenplay: Karl Freund and Walter Ruttmann, from an idea by Carl Meyer; photography: Reimar Kuntze, Robert Babereske, and Laszlo Schaffer; editor: Walter Ruttmann; sets: Erich Kettelhut; music: Edmund Meisel.



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Underlying the totality of Walter Ruttmann's work in Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grossstadt was the aesthetic predicated on the wish to kineticize abstract forms as well as a concern for movement, rhythm, and alluring surface appearances. Originally embodied in a series of innovative animated abstract films Opus I-IV, Ruttmann's eminently permutable aesthetic enabled him to emerge as one of the exemplars of the so-called New Objectivity in film during the middle years of the Weimar Republic. In Berlin, a rhapsodic, quasi-documentary record of a day in the life of Germany's capital, Ruttmann's fetishization of the rhythmic and visual as ends in themselves, fused with the cult of technology and urban modernity that characterized the New Objectivity, took on the aspects of an omniverous cinematic hubris seeking gratification by the manipulation of what Ruttmann termed the "living material" of a metropolis and the "absolute, purely filmic visual motifs" it yielded.

Berlin, then, is the film's true protagonist, a vibrant, pulsating, yet organic totality whose every component—animate or inanimate—is mediated and defined by the periodicity of the whole. The film portrays a day in the life of the city, beginning with panoramic shots of the sleeping metropolis as dawn breaks and concluding with a late-night fireworks display. Compressed between these diurnal poles is a brilliantly edited optical phantasmagoria of life in Berlin. The virtuosity with which cinematic tools are employed to stress certain leitmotifs—for example, the abstract beauty of modern technology— masterfully complements the film's structure, which replicates that of a symphony inasmuch as the alleged rhythms and oscillations of urban activity are organized into a series of movements. Yet consonant with Ruttman's aesthetic, within this rhythmic whole certain icons of modernity are isolated, abstracted, and transformed into purely ornamental images devoid of content and context. The recurring shots of machines, industrial facilities, and the facades of buildings, ripped out of any discernible context and deprived of any function save that of ornamentation, are typical leitmotifs in the film. Now luminous, now in shadow, now static, now in energetic but purposeless motion, they have been ruthlessly pressed into the service of Ruttmann's unrestrained formalism and thus stripped of all independent integrity and meaning.

This fetishism is accompanied by a contempt for human autonomy and subjectivity. Berlin's human inhabitants are placed on the same existential plane as its industrial and technological icons and the traffic that repeatedly criss-crosses the screen. Soulless ornaments, the people are but another source of optical titillation. Such a dehumanizing approach accounts for the gratuitous juxtaposition of shots of chattering monkeys and people conversing on the telephone, of department store mannequins or bobbing mechanical dolls with the anonymous inhabitants of the city, of the legs of workers with those of cattle being herded into a courtyard. Far from representing any rational critique of the contradictions that inhere in and have produced this particular manifestation of urban modernity, such juxtapositions are integrated into a visual rhapsody that, though brilliant in a narrow technical sense, emanates from an obsessive interest in the richness of forms and rhythm yielded by the city. Ruttmann's view of modern life is as a purely aesthetic phenomenon, constituting abstract raw material for the filmmaker and entertaining optical cuisine for the public. This view represents not a denunciation of reificiation and dehumanization but their apotheosis.

Hailed upon its release as a revolutionary work of art, one that "flays our retinas, our nerves, our consciousness," Berlin is still venerated by film historians for its brilliant editing and imaginative structure. However, in the 1920s some perceptive critics, including Siegfried Kracauer and Paul Friedländer, lambasted its failure to establish any meaningful connections among the phenomena it portrayed. Such censure was well-founded, for Berlin reduced urban modernity to the spurious common denominators of dynamism, rhythm, and an aestheticized, reified technology, all of which were enveloped in a vacuous display of optical pyrotechnics. Indeed, these ideas and attitudes came to full fruition within the embrace of National Socialism. Ruttmann's world of abstract forms and stylized technology was fully integrated into the National Socialist public sphere and thereby into the latter's consummation: the mythologization and heroicization of imperialism and barbarism. Thus Berlin, far from being simply another "great film," must also be regarded as a precursor of a genre in which Ruttmann himself later specialized—the Nazi documentary film.

—Barry Fulks

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Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grossstadt

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