Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Abstract Space, Microcosmic Narrative, and the Disavowal of Modernity in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Abstract Space, Microcosmic Narrative, and the Disavowal of Modernity in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City

Article excerpt

By uses of tempo and rhythm, and by the large-scale integration of single effects, [city symphonies] capture the eye and impress the mind in the same way a military parade might do. But by their concentration on mass and movement, they tend to avoid the larger creative job. What more attractive (for a man of visual taste) than to swing wheels and pistons about in ding-dong description of a machine, when he has little to say about the man who tends it? And what more comfortable if, in one's heart, there is avoidance of the issue of underpaid labor and meaningless production? For this reason I hold the symphony tradition of cinema for a danger and Berlin for the most dangerous of all film models to follow.

-John Grierson, "First Principles of Documentary"

The modern cities emerging from the 1920s symphony films that so fascinated and frightened John Grierson resemble living clock- work. These films use the fluid, rapid montage characteristic of avant-garde and popular films of the late silent period-as well as the classi- cal unities of time, place, and theme-to depict a typical day in the life of a real or constructed European capital. At the time of Grierson's writ- ing in the early 1940s, "the symphony tradition of cinema" consisted of eight very different films, ranging from the delicate impressions of a soggy Amsterdam afternoon in Joris Ivens's Regen (1929) to the riotous class critique of seaside vulgarities in Jean Vigo's À propos de Nice (1930).1 However, as Grierson's final quoted sentence suggests, this diverse cin- ematic tradition is often summarized through Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1928). Emphasizing its "symphonic" na- ture and perhaps explaining why it has become the representative critical example of its cycle, Berlin consists of what title cards identify as an overture and five acts. The overture alludes to the city's prehistoric origins, and the opening of the first act depicts a predawn entry into the city via rail. The subsequent four acts detail a typical morning, arrival at work, afternoon, and nightlife, respectively. Contemporary scholars of the city symphony continue to define it with reference to Ruttmann's film, even as the tra- dition itself has expanded beyond the initial 1920s cycle of European avant-garde works to encompass the midcentury New York cycle as well as contemporary global entries more closely aligned with an observational docu- mentary tradition.2

As Grierson implies, Berlin 's symphonic qualities entail the development of evolving themes and apparently divergent rhythms. These are collected and resolved through the creation of a master structure, which is itself derived from the impression of simultaneous, thematically connected phenomena occurring in different locations, resulting in a sense of omnipresence for the viewer (Kracauer 64-65). This concatenation of daily activities produces the city as a transparent, unified organism with a circadian cycle, thereby constructing it as a subject, as Grierson hints at when he speaks of quotidian activities as undertaken by the city itself instead of by its inhabitants (105-06). However, the production of the city as a sub- ject simultaneously reduces the citizenry to part of the rhythmic machine the city comes to resemble (Grierson 106). The legibility lent to the usually overwhelming onslaught of technol- ogy, industry, and spectacle that compose the quotidian reality of the modern urban dweller produces a corresponding erasure of the socio- economic order's alienating, exploitative quali- ties and its historical context.

Grierson concludes that Berlin 's "dangers" derive from its claim to observe, select from, and interpret the material of everyday existence while obscuring the means by which this mate- rial is produced and organized; the film pro- vides a compelling play of surfaces while for- bidding investigation into the manner of their connection. Siegfried Kracauer expanded on Grierson's attack, arguing that the film's "con- centration on mass and movement" not only forbade economic critique but also amounted to a proto-fascist aesthetic (180-83). …

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