Symphony of Great Cities; Berlin, Moscow Star in Documentary Films

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 24, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Symphony of Great Cities; Berlin, Moscow Star in Documentary Films


Byline: Gary Arnold, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

During the late 1920s, a semi-documentary genre called the city symphony flourished in a number of places, Berlin conspicuously included. It was the title character in a famous example directed by Walther Ruttmann, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, first shown in September 1927 and preserved in a somewhat spare DVD edition available from Image Entertainment.

The genre was intended to be pictorially evocative rather than factually informative. The format of Berlin proved serviceable time and again: an impressionistic mosaic of city locales and social life, commencing in the morning with the arrival of a train bound for Berlin and concluding after dark with a survey of the city's nightlife, now beloved in cultural legend for being notoriously uninhibited and unsavory.

Mr. Ruttmann pretends to keep time more accurately than other observers by inserting clock faces at various points of his continuity, divided into five acts. The movie was enhanced by a musical score but not narration or intertitles. The images were meant to tell a succession of representative stories about the way city streets and buildings and factories look; the way residents and the work force awaken, commute and plunge into their jobs; the way these activities subside for the lunch hour and then resume; and finally the way recreation predominates after work hours, from participation in sports to attendance at movies, vaudeville theaters, nightclubs and saloons.

It's a safe assumption that legions of amateur cameramen have been inspired to record the look of their surroundings over the past century. That treasure trove of imagery helps preserve the reality of many places that time has effaced. The Berlin that attracted Mr. Ruttmann's camera crew is largely a lost city now, due to political calamity as well as ordinary growth and decay. Politics has left the movie with unforeseen aspects of the haunted and poignant.

Similar, if somewhat less ambitious, tone poems about Paris and Amsterdam coincided with the appearance of Berlin. The impulse remains very much alive in contemporary filmmakers, even when the city symphony element is subordinated to conventional narrative purposes. For example, Woody Allen's Manhattan was an acknowledged valentine to the location itself. Michael Mann's cutthroat crime thriller Collateral was much easier to like as a pictorial immersion in Los Angeles after dark.

It's believed that Berlin was directly influenced by a Russian city symphony of 1926, Mikhail Kaufman's Moscow. Video editions seem to be nonexistent in this country, but the same filmmaker was conspicuously involved - as principal photographer and title character in a movie that followed Berlin and contrived to surpass it in numerous stylistic and human-interest respects.

Also distributed by Image Entertainment, this creative landmark of the late silent period is Man With the Movie Camera, a 1929 production conceived and supervised by Mikhail Kaufman's slightly older brother Denis, who had assumed the name Dziga Vertov several years earlier.

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