The Seventh Art 2.0: Berlin, Symphony of a Great City


Youtube is a veritable treasure trove for those interested in silent film. With many of the surviving films of the 1890s-1920s in the public domain, and given the relatively low viewership numbers, copyright claims are rare. This series, named after early film critic Riccioto Canudo’s defense of cinema as “The Seventh Art” features a new silent film of artistic and/or historical importance that can be found on Youtube with each entry.

Today’s film: Berlin: Symphony of the Metropolis (Berlin: Sinfonie der Großstadt, 1927)

When a city becomes more than just a backdrop for the action in a film, when its idiosyncrasies play a role in the development of the story, we love to observe that that city is almost like a character in the film. But what is the character of a city? In the 1920s, an experimental and highly influential genre of cinema called the “city symphony” attempted to answer this question. More (or in some ways, less) than simple documentaries, city symphonies are essentially feature-length montages that attempt to create a cinematic portrait of a given city, capturing its movements and mirroring its rhythms in the pattern of the film image. 

Manhatta (1921) is usually recognized as the first city symphony or proto-city symphony, but the term itself comes from the genre’s paragon, Berlin: Symphony of the Metropolis (also translated as Symphony of a Great City, 1927), directed by Walther Ruttmann. The film is comprised of documentary footage, but Ruttmann was renowned as an animator by the mid-1920s, having applied his streamlined, modernist aesthetic to avant-garde productions (Lichtspiel: Opus 1, 1925), advertisements (Der Sieger, 1922), government propaganda (Der Aufstieg, 1926), and even big-budget productions (he animated Kriemheld’s premonitory vision of Siegfried’s death in the first part of Fritz Lang’s excellent Die Nibelungen, 1924). His work on Berlin marked a turn to the creative assembly of documentary footage that would last, unfortunately, into his time producing propaganda for the Nazi regime in the 1930s and ‘40s. 

(All of Ruttmann’s pre-Nazi films are available on a single, region-2 DVD release that I highly recommend if you have the dough and a way to play European discs. Otherwise, though, the links above will lead you to his filmography.)

In 1927, Fox Film Europa engaged Ruttmann to edit together footage of Berlin shot by legendary cinematographer Karl Freund (The Last Laugh [1924], Metropolis [1927]). The idea of a documentary portrait of Berlin, at the time Europe’s fastest-growing city and the center of artistic innovation, came about as a cheap way to fulfill production quotas: according to German regulations, a certain percentage of films exhibited in theaters had to be German productions. As Fox Film Europa’s primary business interest was moving Fox Film productions (the company had not yet merged with 20th-Century Films) into Europe, Berlin was intended as a so-called “quota film,” to free up room to move more American films into the German market. 

Its most recent model was previous city films like Die Stadt der Millionen (The City of Millions, 1925), a documentary produced by the German film monopoly Ufa just a couple of years before. While Die Stadt der Millionen showed a certain interest in cinematic effects—including animated and stop-motion sequences, staged flashbacks, and composite imagery—it had been a rather staid, factual documentary of Berlin and its environs. Given his background in experimental animation, Ruttmann had something else in mind: a study of the forms of the city, as expressed in the movements of workers, idlers, performers, architecture, machines, transportation, construction, commerce, and entertainment. Berlin: Sinfonie der Großstadt would create musical movements out of the city’s rhythms and formal correspondences, pieces that have imagistic accelerandos and ritardandos, crescendos and decrescendos.

The term “city symphony” may reference Ruttmann’s film, but the name of the film itself comes from cinema’s analogy to music, which was frequently observed by its early theorists: cinema does not just capture real-world movement—it tracks change in time. Just as melody does not inhere in either of two individual notes but in the difference between those notes, movement does not consist of a single image, but of the difference between one image and the next. Movies do for the eye what music does for the ear. This, anyway, was the notion of many early champions of film, including Ruttman and fellow makers of “absolute film,” a genre of animation that dealt in abstract forms and movement. 

Ruttmann opens Berlin by referencing his absolute films of previous years. It begins with a close-up shot of gently moving water, which fades into shifting horizontal lines of white and black that run the length of the screen. As the movement of these lines accelerate, geometric shapes emerge and disappear behind them: a circle, a thick rectangle, two thin rectangles that pivot on an axis, falling from the top to the bottom of the screen. In a graphic match, the film cuts to railroad barriers falling into place. A train speeds by the camera, and we’re treated to a montage of sights from the train as it chugs across the German countryside: rapidly disappearing railroad ties, crisscrossing telegraph and power lines, the railroad wheels themselves. The speed of the editing intensifies as we begin to recognize in the images the simultaneous combination of abstract shapes that Ruttmann’s animation has already shown us.

The analogy between highly abstract shapes and rhythms and the modern world undergirds Ruttmann’s approach to the material of Berlin. With this opening scene comes his thesis statement—that the cinema can reveal the underlying “true” forms of the city through montage (meaning, in a broad sense, editing) that reveals analogies in shape and rhythm. The train slows down and pulls into Anhalter Bahnhof (once Berlin’s greatest train station; today merely a bomb-scarred facade), and the film, likewise, enters Berlin. Throughout, it asks the viewer to find analogies through its juxtapositions: between industrial machines and modern architecture; between masses of workers trudging to their jobs and regiments of soldiers marching in the streets; between the incessant movement of communication networks (telephones, typewriters, telegraphs) and the chaos of animal life; between mannequins and modern humans.

The overriding analogy, however, is between kinds of movement, and particularly the movement of the film image and the various kinds of movement in the city. This movement is structured into five acts, structured around themes (e.g., work, shopping, entertainment) and times of day, that each contain their own patterned accelerations and decelerations, both within the image and between the images. Berlin follows the intense visuality of the silent image to a logical extreme, creating one of the finest examples of what film could be before the advent of sound. Although it has been critiqued over the years for its tendency to idealize and depoliticize social relations—explicitly reducing them to mere forms to be played with, which critics have seen as foreboding Ruttmann’s fascist turn—Berlin: Symphony of the Metropolis remains a masterwork of the silent cinema, one of the greatest formal accomplishments of an era.