Sunday, April 19, 2009

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City


"Unique" is not only an overused word; it's misused 90 percent of the time. It means "one of a kind," "unlike any other." Am I being pedantic? Okay, sue me.

Very little in this world is unique. That definitely includes movies. Few movies are even original, in anything but details, let alone unique. But the 1927 film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City is unique in my experience.

Symphony belongs to the '20s avant-garde, and I'm sure film school dissertations have been written about its technique and structure, or the filmmaker's intended sociological message. I couldn't care less about that stuff. (But the editing -- pretentiously called "montage" in those days -- is superb, remarkable for its time.)


If there is such a thing as a visual historian, I guess I am one at heart. I'm fascinated by how things (including people) looked in the past. I want to be a time traveler (albeit, in some eras, enclosed in a cloak of invisibility or an impregnable machine).

Old movies offer a glimpse of the past, but an artificial and staged one. Literally: they were almost always shot on sound stages. It was only much later that location shooting became common. Then as now, movies did not hold the mirror up to ordinary daily life.

But that's exactly what Symphony does. Three cameramen are credited, and what they appear to have done, mostly, is view what was going on as people went about their lives, working in offices and factories, riding streetcars, drinking their troubles away, dancing in nightclubs, watching cabaret shows. The Berlin streetscape and buildings are what you would have seen at the time, not a modern set designer's or special effects person's idea of their appearance.

A few scenes, such as a woman committing suicide by jumping off a bridge, are obviously scripted and break the spell, but only temporarily. Most of the time, you have an uncanny "I am there" feeling.

(The film was originally silent, and possibly a piano score was written to accompany it. This new edition comes with a good orchestral score, appropriate to the action and with Kurt Weill-like sonorities for period authenticity.)


So what does "being there" feel like? The time, 1927, was a relatively prosperous interlude in Berlin's history. The Great War, which had ended less than a decade before, doesn't seem to have affected the city in any visible way. The mad inflation of the postwar Weimar Republic had been tamed.

We know what was to come, of course, but while we are immersed in this cinematic Pompeii it's useful for understanding if we put aside our post facto awareness and just absorb what's in front of us.

We see a city that is in many ways surprisingly modern. Some of the buildings are in the International or Bauhaus style, unornamented, with regularized window patterns. Automated factories house mechanical arms doing what human arms once did, gears turning and gripping -- the nonhuman environment Charlie Chaplin would satirize a few years later in Modern Times. Streetcars are ubiquitous, automobiles that look well cared for plentiful, office desks have telephones. Railroad overpasses are much like those that still exist.

But we see vestiges of an older Berlin, too. Shop signs with elegant 19th century lettering. Still quite a few horse-drawn vehicles, which mostly seem to be for hauling cargo. Even cattle are driven through the streets, to a slaughterhouse, I suppose, still located in the central city. We do the nasty to our cattle in remote places nowadays, out of sight and mind.

The people do not appear aware of a camera recording their activities for others to watch 80 years later. Most (not all) appear prosperous, the men well turned out in expensive suits, the women with "flapper"-style hairdos and the bell-shaped hats that were in fashion.


Looking for signs of Berlin's legendary decadence? They didn't make it into the film. There are wonderful shots of an American-style jazz band, and the cabaret dancers show a lot of flesh without being very naughty.

Looking for signs of belligerence and aggression? You won't find them. There is one shot of soldiers marching in the street, no more or less militant than any others. A dignitary is shown with an honor guard of soldiers in comic-opera dress uniforms. Police directing traffic are hardly fierce, especially under their goofy hats, like upside-down flower pots with bills.

Obviously, Symphony doesn't show everything that was going on or every side of life in Berlin. If the city Zentrum looks calm, no doubt there were Nazi and Communist cadres meeting somewhere. The smartly dressed business people may hardly have been aware of it, but surely in grim suburbs were large populations of men who had been mutilated in the war, had no work to go to, no future to look forward to.

Nevertheless, on the evidence of Symphony, Berlin in 1927 seems on the surface to have been pretty normal, and aside from regional differences not unlike any major city in Europe, or New York, or Chicago. That apparently benign appearance makes what would soon happen in the Nazi era more appalling, not less.


Although, as I said, it's worth the effort to watch this time capsule without imposing hindsight on it, when you think about it later you can't help applying your knowledge of subsequent history. Some of the young boys would have arms and legs blown off and die freezing in the snow outside Stalingrad. Many adults would meet their ends by fragmentation, fire, asphyxiation, being crushed under falling masonry in the Allied air raids that tore the city to fragments. The pretty young women we see in Symphony, if they survived the bombing, would be raped by Russian soldiers.

Whatever they thought they were doing when they elected Hitler a few years later, they didn't imagine the outcome. No one could have imagined that.



David said...

Here are a couple more non-staged films from times past:

London in 1904Around Cape Horn under sail in 1929

David said...

Rick, did you get any music when you watched this? When I looked at it from the link on the Wikipedia article, I didn't get any audio at all.

Rick Darby said...


The DVD includes a modern, but period-flavor, orchestral score. There may be earlier, silent editions floating around. The DVD is available for rental from Netflix.

Thanks for the links. I saw that clip from 1904 when it was featured in the Telegraph and was so amazed I watched it several times. I wish there had been an hour's worth of footage!

David said...

Oh..didn't know it was avail from Netflix...I was looking at the online version. I'll have to get it.

You may or may not be interested in this given your politics moratorium, but there are a couple of interesting books on Berlin between the wars:

A Dance Between Flames, Anton Gill

What I Saw, Joseph Roth

Rick Darby said...


My politics moratorium is only about writing, not learning, and subject to change without prior notice anyway. Thanks for the references.

Also: can you (or any other commenter) recommend a book or books on the War Between the States that gives an accurate picture of the Southern perspective? It seems that everything we are told has a conscious or unconscious Northern bias. "History is written by the winners."