Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Berlin, Die Sinfonie der Grossstadt - download

This is "Berlin, Symphony of a Great City", Die Sinfonie der Grossstadt, a film made in 1927 directed by Walther Ruttmann. A symphony, but a silent movie? Partly they didn't have the technology then but this film actually works better with silence, for many reasons.

First, you concentrate on the images and the way they flow together to create a "symphony" in the original sense of the word, a weaving together of images. And what images - trains moving into the heart of the city, the lines so carefully choreographed that they move almost into one another, telephone cables crisscrossing in the sky, the innards of a telephone exchange dissected to show how thousands of lines cross and don't cross. The S Bahn and U Bahn and recognizable stations. This is abstract art, using real images, incredibly beautiful. Even now it looks modern, but in 1927 this was truly avant garde, for it celebrates state of the art technology.

Second, there's no need for narrative as this film depicts the life of a big city, teeming with people, each with individual narratives of their own. Each has his or her own life beyond what's caught on film, They've come from somewhere and will be going off to somewhere else, but for a few frames they're immortal, caught on screen. Most of them probably never knew they were being filmed. All of them are now dead, even probably the laughing babies in their prams and the kids scampering in the gutter (an image that any modern parent would howl at).

Third, the film doesn't judge. It's not some simplistic Marxist dialectic. All people and objects were filmed as they existed. The monk watching the demo, the beggar seeking alms, the old woman painfully climbing up the stairs to a church, rich and poor, old and young. A black man smiles in one shot, and in the background of another, two Indonesians in sarongs walk past - no explanation. A pretty girl in pale silk, her scarf blowing in the breeze, caught forever in motion. Animals and humans, lions and street dogs, beggars and government big brass. A little girl tries to pull her dolly pram up some steps, but fails. Two slightly older girls walk past, with looks that say "What a baby". A tram speeds past an elaborate 19th century hearse, pulled by horses.

Horses and streetcars, trains and tiny propeller airplanes that take us up for an aerial view of the city - almost unprecedented back then. The plane is Lufthansa but not the Lufthansa we know today. Everything seems excitingly modern - the bride and her family look as if it's the first time they've been in a car. Yet so much they take for granted is unknown to us now : elaborate puppets in shops, and in the streets musicians playing strange hurdy-gurdys we cannot hear. There's a procession of men dressed in weird costumes - they're advertising salt, of all things. And the footmen around the official building wear 18th century costumes - no one bats an eyelid, it must have been normal uniform. Footmen? yes, coaches with horses, straight out of Frederick The Great.

The film is like a symphony too in that it works in "movements" or Aktes - transport, food, night. And like a symphony it flows together theme by theme, images juxtaposed impressionistically to create the feel of a great city, alive and thriving. These aren't actors, but real people, There's hardly any mis-en-scène except perhaps the sequence with the dangerous ride in the funfair spliced with the desperately unhappy woman and the horrified crowd waving at something fallen from a bridge. I'm not sure whether Brecht and Eisler's On Suicide was written before or after this film, but it's a climactic moment. "In diesem Lande, und in diesem Zeit... there should be no melancholy evenings, or high bridges, over the water...... for these are dangerous...." But the image, now, is poignant because we know the film was made on the precipice of German history, even though the filmmakers didn't know it then.

Everyone in this film is dead now, even the babies in their prams. We know what was going to happen in Berlin barely five years later, and the apocalypse to come. The thing about history is that it's happening around us all the time. We don't know it as it happens, because it "becomes" history only in hindsight, when things seem to fall into analyzable place. The film makers are presenting us with an almost - not quite - objective source material which we can interpret in ways they probably could not foresee. History is no more than an ordering of documentary materials according to principles that might not be evident at the time they happen. That's why history is an art, and much more dangerous than the way it's taught in schools. It should be a search for truth, but often it's a way of rearranging reality to serve a purpose.

I tried to think of music to go with this but it's impossible, It would deface the dignity of these images, which bear silent testimony to a world long gone, which sometimes we can still catch echos of today. Better to switch off the world around you, and sit suspended in time, alone, for an hour, and watch this amazing film as it unfolds. This movie can be watched fullscreen and freeze framed if you want to check details.
Please see my other posts about Berlin, Furtwangler, The Wall, and German history


Lisa Hirsch said...

Just added to my Netflix queue - thank you.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh...and I expect the DVD issue has whatever the soundtrack was for the original issue. There would have been a score for it.

Doundou Tchil said...

I checked this was a silent film as they didn't do sound in 1927. Then I wondered "what" music as the film is kaleidoscopic, mechanical, modern, yet so many bits of the past, popular culture etc. Difficult to get music to match. And to match the sophistication of the film. Even specially written music would have to be pretty amazing. But the film works fine in its original. concieved.

Doundou Tchil said...

Just had a message from the reader who tracked down the soundtrack. "There is a musical soundtrack on the DVD version of Berlin. But it was
written in 1994 by a guy called Timothy Brock who specialises in this sort of thing ­ see his website especially http://www.timothybrock.com/original_scores.htm
Fascinating subject ! when I did the post on the Chinese movie Peach Girl, the man who wrote the soundtrack to that wrote in- see his site, too. His "Chinese" music fits beautifully. That too is on DVD,.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Talking films - with sound on the film itself - started coming out in 1927, and even before that there were some films with sound on disks synchronized with the film. But what I meant is that many silent films were intended to be accompanied by live music, like Die Nibelungen, and the DVD releases of those films usually have modern recordings of the original soundtrack as a sound option.

Doundou Tchil said...

Good point, but I don't know what they did with this one. Maybe Timothy Brock will know. What an adventure this is turning out to be !