Offered the chance to travel back in time to any city in any period, surely more than a few would choose Berlin in the 1920s. Ideally it would be Berlin in the mid-1920s: after much of the social and economic damage of the Great War had been repaired, but before the Great Depression reached Germany at the end of the decade, doing its part to enable the rise of Hitler. The closest experience to stepping in that time machine yet developed is the video above, a series of clips from Walther Ruttmann’s 1927 documentary Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, previously featured here in Open Culture — but smoothed out, scaled up, and colorized with the aid of applications powered by artificial intelligence.
Describing it as “the real Babylon Berlin of the 1920s” portrayed “from dawn until dusk in three minutes,” the video’s poster emphasizes that the Berlin of the Weimar Republic (the German state from 1918 to 1933) “was a multi-cultural city” — which it is again today, though a little less than a century ago it was one “teeming with flappers, bobbed hair, cloche hats, and the dancing girls of Berlin’s infamous cabaret scene.”
During these Weimar “Golden Years,” Berlin experienced a “cultural explosion,” the vividness of which is underscored by the myriad enhancements performed on Ruttmann’s already striking original footage. These include the use of DeNoise, the interpolation of motion “using a deep learning open source program Dain-App,” and the addition of color with Deoldify.
You may recognize the name of that last application, which was used a couple of years ago to create a “remixed” version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, now nowhere to be found on the internet. Other, more benign uses of DeOldify include the colorization of dance sequences from black-and-white films like Stormy Weather and Hellzapoppin’, as well as of an 1896 snowball fight originally captured by the Lumière Brothers. Ruttmann’s work, and that of other creators of “city symphonies” in the 1920s, builds on that of those cinema pioneers for whom real life was the natural subject, capturing livelier urban environments with dynamic and innovative shooting and editing techniques to match. If you enjoy your three minutes in the DeOldified version of his Berlin, why not spent a little more of your day in similarly deep-learning-enhanced Paris, New York, and Havana of the past as well?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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 or on Facebook.