Because of both the historical importance and the playfulness of form, city symphony can be defined as a poetic, experimental documentary that presents a portrait of a daily life within a city while attempting to capture something of the city’s spirit.
Berlin: Symphony of a City
Allan James Thomas
Berlin: Symphony of a City (Berlin: die Sinfonie der Großstadt)
(1927, Germany, 50 mins, B&W, silent)
How to watch a film like Berlin: Symphony of a City, seventy-three years after it was made? The obvious temptation is to view it as an historical document, an insight into the patterns of life and living in Berlin in the late ’20s – certainly the film lends itself to such a viewing. It offers us a literal ‘day in the life of’, bringing us into Berlin by train as the sun rises, and following the life of the city as it wakes, goes to work through the morning and into the afternoon, moves from work to play, to sport and dancing and drinking deep into the night. It leaps swiftly from rich to poor, from man to machine and back again, from the grandeur of the city-scape to the sewers beneath, and always movement, movement in every way that can be found. Trains, trams, horses, bustling crowds, spinning wheels and fairground rides, boat races, horse races, dog races, dancing and pounding machines, always we see the dynamism of a city in motion. It is an extraordinarily beautiful film, and its distance from us in time and in experience only emphasises that beauty. Like a carved miniature, it offers us a model of Berlin brought close and intimate, and yet viewed from across an unbridgeable gap.
At least part of this gap is a consequence of the sheer aestheticism of the film itself; we see its beauty before we see anything else. Documentary makers from John Grierson to Jean Rouch and beyond have warned of the dangers of the beautiful image within documentary film. In an article written in the mid ’30s (1), Grierson picks out Berlin in particular as an example of what documentary should not be. Despite the beauty and power of its images, and the dynamism of its editing (which he acknowledges), for Grierson, Berlin ultimately fails to show us anything of any import:
For all its ado of workmen and factories and swirl and swing of a great city, Berlin created nothing. Or if it created something, it was that shower of rain in the afternoon (2). The people of the city got up splendidly, they tumbled through their five million hoops impressively, they turned in; and no other issue of God or man emerged than that sudden besmattering spilling of wet on people and pavements. (3)
In its emphasis on the beautiful and the visually dramatic to the exclusion of any ‘issue’ as such (unemployment for instance), the film, for Grierson at least, shirks its social responsibilities; we come out no better informed or educated than we were before.
Is this a fair critique of the film? Certainly there would seem to be at least the seeds of political analysis at work in Berlin, in its constant juxtaposition of the everyday life of the worker and that of the wealthy elite. It’s certainly tempting to read such comparisons as illustrations of the unfair consequences of an unequal distribution of wealth. In some cases the contrasts and analogies drawn through editing resemble something one might see in a film by Eisenstein or Vertov; for example, a series of shots of rich and poor at their respective lunches are interspersed with shots of lions tearing up a leg of raw meat. One could easily imagine an Eisenstein forming a metaphorical juxtaposition with these shots suggesting that the rich devour the poor like ravenous lions.
However, although the linking of the scenes does seem to suggest that an analogy or metaphor is being drawn, it is ambiguous whether it is the poor or the rich who are being compared to a ravenous lion. Indeed, it seems that if there is a point being made, it is that rich and poor are all the same in their primal needs and desires. What it shows us is not the contrast between the conditions of rich and poor, but their basic similarity. For all of the juxtapositions of rich and poor and their respective lifestyles we find in Berlin, the ultimate effect is not to oppose the two in a dialectic of class struggle, but to suggest their ultimate unity as differentiated parts unified by their common membership of the same organic whole, that is to say, Berlin itself (4). One cannot agree with Grierson when he argues that Berlin shows us nothing, that it is purely an aesthetic experience; it offers us a dynamic expression of the city in motion, the interaction of its parts as they make up the whole that is Berlin.
The problem is that the Berlin it offers us is a profoundly ahistorical one; by subsuming any conflict between its opposing elements to their ultimate unity as part of the whole, it suggests that ultimately there can be no change. The parts that make it up can come and go, but Berlin will always be Berlin. If, from where we are now, we can view it ‘historically’, it is not because it offers us a snapshot of a time passed; it offers us no more than a false unity, forged by the subsumption of difference (class, race, religion, politics) to the apparent unity of the whole. Like the carved miniature I evoked earlier, it holds us at a distance, the better to appreciate it’s intricate beauty. If we see ‘history’ in the film, viewing it seventy-three years later, it is because we see in that intricate beauty the traces of the conflict to come which will shatter the false whole, unravel the city, and the state, altogether; the soldiers marching the streets in those distinctive helmets which will march across Europe, the Jews walking freely, the children who in 15 years or so will be herding those same Jews into the concentration camps. We can watch it, not as a snapshot of what has been, but as an uncanny, ghostly foreshadowing of what will be…
© Allan Thomas 2000
(1) Grierson, John. ‘First Principles of Documentary’, in Kevin Macdonald & Mark Cousins (eds.) Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber and Faber, 1996
(2) Interestingly, in the print I’ve been watching, there is no shower of rain in the afternoon, although the streets of the city are certainly wet with rain in the final, evening shots of the film. Is it possible Grierson is conflating Berlin with Joris Ivens’ Rain (Regen) (1929)? Rain is certainly in a similar mode to Berlin (although it is more ‘a day in the life of rain’, than of a city), and there is an afternoon shower featured in it which matches Grierson’s description.
(3) Grierson, opcit., p 100
(4) This argument is adapted from one Gilles Deleuze makes with regard to a comparison between Eisenstein and Griffith, where Griffith’s use of parallel alternating montage suggests a unity of disparate elements, whereas Eisenstein’s montage of opposition opposes those elements dialectically to produce a unity at a higher level of explanation, in a third shot. This higher level of explanation is, as Deleuze points out, that of social exploitation. See Deleuze, Gilles: Cinema 1: The Movement Image (trans. by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, pp30-33