The rediscovery of Berlin began thirty years ago this November, with the demolition of the wall that had long divided the city’s western and eastern halves. Specifically, the Berlin Wall had stood since 1961, meaning the younger generation of West and East Berliners had no memory of their city’s being whole. In another sense, the same could be said of their parents’ generation, who saw nearly a third of Berlin destroyed in the Second World War. Only the most venerable Berliners would have remembered the social and industrial golden age the undivided city enjoyed back in the 1920s — an age exhilaratingly presented in the film Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis.
An early example of the silent-era “city symphonies” that showed off the capitals of the world on film (several of which you can watch here on Open Culture), Berlin takes the viewer along streets and waterways, through parks, onto trains and elevators, on roller coasters, and into factories, building sites, cabarets, and skies. Shot over a year and compressed into less than an hour, this avant-garde documentary captures the experience of Berlin in the 1920s — or rather it captures, in that mightily industrial age, experience at the intersection of human and machine. Director Walther Ruttmann “charts the movements of crowds of children, workers, swimmers, rowers, and so on,” writes Popmatters’ Chadwick Jenkins, “but only occasionally focuses on a person as an individual. Moreover, many of the most striking scenes in the film avoid the intrusion of people altogether, concentrating instead on the operation of mechanical devices.”
Absent explanatory narration or title cards, the film invites a variety of readings. Chadwick sees it as “the defamatory dehumanization of the human, the derogation of human autonomy and dominion over a world of indifferent matter, a reduction of the divine spark in humankind to the status of another mere thing.” This same quality drove away one of Ruttmann’s key collaborators on Berlin, the writer Carl Mayer. Ruttmann, for his part, described his own motivation as “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.”
A primary interest in movement itself is perhaps to be expected from a filmmaker who had previously distinguished himself as an abstract animator. (What his later work as an assistant to Leni Riefenstahl on Triumph of the Will indicates is another matter.) But if Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis “dehumanizes,” writes Jenkins, it does so as a deliberate artistic strategy to show that “the city is more than its various components, including its human components,” and to “provide an insight into the emergent qualities that make a city what it is, beyond being a mere composite of the elements within its geographical boundaries,” however those boundaries get drawn and redrawn over time.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.