The Golden Age of Berlin Comes to Life in the Classic, Avant-Garde Film, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927)

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.

Berlin: Sym­pho­ny of a Metrop­o­lis will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Samuel Beck­ett Walk the Streets of Berlin Like a Boss, 1969

See Berlin Before and After World War II in Star­tling Col­or Video

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

Berlin Street Scenes Beau­ti­ful­ly Caught on Film (1900–1914)

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

The First Avant Garde Ani­ma­tion: Watch Wal­ter Ruttmann’s Licht­spiel Opus 1 (1921)

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.

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