Watch 1920s “City Symphonies” Starring the Great Cities of the World: From New York to Berlin to São Paulo

Cities as we know them came into being when they indus­tri­al­ized in the 19th cen­tu­ry. Film as we know it came into being when its own indus­try devel­oped in the 20th. And so film came into its own in an era when cities around the world had become the most fas­ci­nat­ing places going. It makes sense, then, that ear­ly motion pic­tures — even the very ear­li­est, in the form of the Lumière broth­ers’ shots of the streets of 1980s Lyon — often took cities as their sub­jects.

“The 1920s were a key decade in the devel­op­ment of cities,” writes urban car­tog­ra­ph­er and explor­er Eric Bright­well. Not only did that era see the begin­ning of the preser­va­tion move­ment, “built around the notion that archi­tec­ture and his­to­ry were some­times as worth pre­serv­ing as wilder­ness and nature,” but “the 1920 cen­sus revealed that for the first time more Amer­i­cans lived in cities than the coun­try. Le Cor­busier began writ­ing his series, ‘1925 Expo: Arts Déco,’ and Art Deco soon became one of the archi­tec­tur­al styles most close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with high-ris­es.”

Bright­well adds that “the 1920s also gave rise to the city sym­pho­ny.” They’ve been loose­ly defined “as a poet­ic, exper­i­men­tal doc­u­men­tary that presents a por­trait of dai­ly life with­in a city while attempt­ing to cap­ture some­thing of the city’s spir­it.”

Some impor­tant exam­ples with­in the genre include films such as Paul Strand and Charles Sheel­er’s short Man­hat­ta (1921), Alber­to Cav­al­can­ti’s Rien que les heures (1926) on Paris, Wal­ter Ruttman­n’s Berlin: Die Sin­fonie der Großs­tadt (1927), André Sauvage’s Études sur Paris (1928), Dzi­ga Ver­tov’Man With a Movie Cam­era (1929), Adal­ber­to Keme­ny and Rudolf Rex Lustig’s São Paulo, Sin­fo­nia da Metró­pole (1929), and Alexan­der Ham­mid’s Bezúčel­ná procház­ka (1930). (Even fic­tion films of the era took notice of the new urban con­di­tion in a big way; see, to name one obvi­ous exam­ple, Fritz Lang’s Metrop­o­lis.)

These films, each of a slight­ly dif­fer­ent and some­times more than slight­ly exper­i­men­tal form, do indeed cap­ture the sense of pos­si­bil­i­ty that only a city can give off. Alas, the next eighty years of the 20th century—a time when even some of the great­est metrop­o­lis­es would suf­fer pop­u­la­tion exo­dus, free­way-build­ing, and “urban renew­al” in all its forms—wouldn’t treat cities very well. But they’ve now made a come­back, sig­naled by the much-dis­cussed fact that, in the 21st cen­tu­ry, more human beings every­where live in cities than not. Maybe this new era of cities will bring about a new era of city sym­phonies. If so, its film­mak­ers will cer­tain­ly have a rich tra­di­tion to work with.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free: Dzi­ga Vertov’s A Man with a Movie Cam­era, the 8th Best Film Ever Made

Paris Through Pen­tax: Short Film Lets You See a Great City Through a Dif­fer­ent Lens

A Drone’s Eye View of Los Ange­les, New York, Lon­don, Bangkok & Mex­i­co City

The Old­est Known Footage of Lon­don (1890–1920) Fea­tures the City’s Great Land­marks

Lon­don Mashed Up: Footage of the City from 1924 Lay­ered Onto Footage from 2013

Dra­mat­ic Col­or Footage Shows a Bombed-Out Berlin a Month After Germany’s WWII Defeat (1945)

The City in Cin­e­ma Mini-Doc­u­men­taries Reveal the Los Ange­les of Blade Run­ner, Her, Dri­ve, Repo Man, and More

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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