In nineteen twenty seven, Berlin was a city suspended between two wars. Germany had been devastated by the violent conflict which had ended less than a decade before. It was a country still trying to rebuild itself, with mixed success. The capitol was in a dizzying state of flux. The government was fragile, the economy was unstable, but the culture was flourishing. The chaos seemed to inspire artists, writers and composers to break away from the past and imagine a new future.
Nowhere was this newfound freedom more apparent than in German cinema. Writers, directors and designers explored radical new approaches to making movies, and the films they made attracted a good deal of attention both in Europe and abroad. One of the most original talents to emerge during this period was Walther Ruttman. Ruttman had worked as an artist and an architect before beginning his film career in the early twenties. He began making abstract animated shorts using form and color to create a kind of visual music.
Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt uses images of a vast metropolis to create a different kind of visual music. It is not a documentary, but an attempt to distill the spirit of this great capitol in a cinematic tone poem. Ruttman didn’t want to tell a story. He wanted to compose music with images. In this film he creates a visual symphony that incorporates the frenzied energy, the languorous calm, the lights, the shadows, the madness, the excitement of a great city.
In the same way that a symphony is divided into movements, the film is divided into five parts, or “acts”. We observe the life of the capitol through the course of a day, starting at dawn and ending at midnight, with each of the five parts focussing on different aspects of this sprawling urban giant. And just as a piece of music has various themes that recur throughout, there are visual motifs that are used repeatedly, binding the torrent of images together.
The opening sequence is a perfect example of the film’s musical structure. Ruttman begins with images of water, rippling gently. This segues to an animated sequence, where horizontal lines are crossed by diagonal lines falling against each other in a rhythm that builds slowly. And then we’re at a railroad crossing as barriers fall into place across the tracks. Suddenly a train is hurtling across the screen, and soon we’re experiencing the motion of the train as it rushes through space, trees flashing by so quickly they become abstract shadows flying past in a blur. After tearing through the countryside, speeding past the slums on the outskirts, the train gradually slows, the rhythm gradually slows, as we enter the city.
From this powerful opening, the film goes on to show us a panorama of life in Berlin during the twenties. We see children stroll through the streets on their way to school and workers march through the gates at massive factories. We see the wealthy consuming their banquets with relish and the poor begging for scraps on the street. Machines play a central role in the film, spinning, stamping, steaming, smoking. At times the action is fast-paced and frenetic, pulling us into the aggressive rhythm of the city. But the director also shows us that there are quiet moments, spaces for relaxation and leisure.
Throughout the film Ruttman focusses on the crowd rather than on individuals. He seems to be standing back, trying to act as a neutral observer, but at times he does comment on the images. Scenes of crowds milling through the streets on their way to work are juxtaposed with a herd of cattle making their way down a road. A frenzied montage of men in the business world is matched with footage of dogs fighting. And there are moments when Ruttman pushes the film into abstraction. Typewriter keys melt into a geometric swirl of letters. Pinwheels fill the screen, spinning relentlessly. Words come rising rhythmically off pages of newsprint.
The images are half of the film. The other half is the score. Sadly, the music originally written for Berlin by Edmund Meisel has apparently been lost. But the version of the film that I’ve seen, which was released by Kino Video in the nineties, has a newly composed score by Timothy Brock which is beautifully suited to Ruttman’s cinematic tour de force. With a movie like this, the composer isn’t just writing individual cues as needed. Brock’s score for Berlin is a complete work. He must have spent a lot of time with the film, getting to know it intimately before he started, because his music is perfectly matched to the images on the screen. The driving motion of machines is accompanied by a furious string section playing overlapping rhythmic figures. A lull in the early afternoon is scored with lyrical winds and reeds. And to underline the frightening intensity of this massive city, the composer rolls out thundering percussion as needed. Brock’s score gives this film everything it needs. He nails it.
Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt is a thrilling, visionary film. I’m so blown away by what Ruttman accomplished that I’d like to hold him up as a hero. But I can’t. As I said earlier, at the time this film was made, Germany was between two wars. The country’s faltering economy finally collapsed, driving a desperate nation to desperate solutions. By the early thirties the German people were embracing Adolph Hitler as their leader. While many German filmmakers fled the madness, Ruttman stayed behind and worked for the Nazis, making propaganda films. In nineteen forty one he was injured while filming at the Russian front, and died shortly after.
It’s baffling to see an artist with so much talent and so much imagination embrace the horror of Nazism. How could someone so intelligent embrace a philosophy that worshipped violence and death? As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more and more aware of the disturbing fact that there are people who have tremendous gifts who also do truly monstrous things. I don’t understand it. I don’t think I ever will.
But just as I can’t embrace Ruttman as a hero, I can’t dismiss his work. Berlin is an exhilarating panorama of a modern metropolis in all its terrifying wonder. A silent film that uses the power of images to reach across time and space to show us a place, a people, that have long since vanished. And also a work of art that, if we look closely, might remind us of who we really are.