Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927)

To document a single day in a big city, without doing so through the viewpoint of a single protagonist, would perhaps seem like a pretty rotten idea. Yet that is what the film Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: The Symphony of a Metropolis) sets out to do. And thanks to the excellent filming and cutting, there is not a single dull minute in it.

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927)

In fact, it is not entirely correct to say that there is no protagonist in the film. The protagonist is the city itself. All the people we see are deindividualised and impersonal, but they are part of the larger entity and organism that makes up the city they live in. You can choose to see the people as the air that the city breathes.

The film is subdivided into five acts, each of which deals with a particular part of the day. For example, the film begins with a train moving into the city, and through the eyes of people arriving with that early morning train we see the city slowly waking up. Another act deals with people going to lunch, and in one of the film’s many instances of dry humour, the lunching Berliners are shown interfoliated with animals at the Berlin Zoo, also eating their lunches.

As a piece of trivia for Charlie Chaplin fans, Chaplin’s legs can be seen briefly, as a cinema audience watch The Gold Rush, and the lower part of the screen is captured in the film.

The copy at the Internet Archive is not subtitled, but that is not a problem. Except for a few street signs and title cards announcing when the various acts begin and end, the only language you will find is the visual language of film itself. Director Walter Ruttmann wisely decided to tell the story entirely through images, with no help of words.

This film is best enjoyed as a one-way time machine. In its own time, I suppose the film was mostly conceived as a work of art. But today, you get to see the fashion, architecture, cars, trams, horse-drawn carriages and a myriad other everyday aspects of life in Berlin as it was 90 years ago. This is especially interesting when you consider that only a few years later, the Nazis were to take over, and in less than 20 years, most of the city would lay in ruins. The film allows us, for a brief hour, to take part in the lives of people who are no longer living, and to breathe with a city that is now a totally different entity.

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927)

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt
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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 4 min
Language: No title cards
Director: Walter Ruttmann
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (672×508; not counting black border)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (432 M)

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Downhill (1927)

Alfred Hitchcock’s early films are only rarely the suspense filled thrillers that we are used to from his later works. There are many dramas and a few comedies. Some are interesting only for tracing Hitchcock’s development, but a few are genuinely good. One of those is Downhill.

downhill

Downhill was the second time – after The Lodger (1927) – that Hitchcock used Ivor Novello as his leading actor. Novello, at the time highly popular, also worked on the script. Some believe that the story reflects Novello’s attitudes towards women. He was apparently a homosexual, and the women in Downhill are for the most part treacherous, deceiving and seeking lust or riches. This is a pretty risqué story, even though some of the moral implications may seem very dated today.

Another important theme is that of friendship and trust. The friends Roddy (Novello) and Tim (Robin Irvine, also very good) go to the same school and are interested in the same woman. When Tim makes her pregnant, Roddy takes the blame and is consequently expelled from school and disowned by his father. This is the start of his moral and economic downhill ride in society, a ride which is sometimes depicted with brutal sincerity.

Hitchcock’s image compositions are terribly elegant, sometimes bordering on overdone. The influence from German Expressionism can be clearly seen (F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924) was one of Hitchcock’s major sources of inspiration). In fact, had this film been made in Germany, I am sure it would have been considered part of the German Expressionism.

This film is best enjoyed if you do not expect a “regular” Hitchcock. Downhill is a good silent drama, and Hitchcock is experimenting successfully with visual elements that he were to re-use later in many of his thrillers. The theme of the falsely accused is also used to great effect here. But no thriller or horror elements are to be expected, so while the lover of silent cinema is likely to enjoy this, the casual Hitchcock fan may find it a disappointment.

Ivor Novello in Alfred Hitchcock's Downhill (1927)

Downhill
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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Ivor Novello
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (560×416)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (969 M)

The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog (1927)

I think it is safe to say that Alfred Hitchcock is best remembered today for his many suspenseful horror films and drama thrillers. His production of silent films is considerably less well-known, though some of them are not bad at all. In the 1920s, he was still perfecting his genius, but the fantastic storytelling skills can clearly be seen even in these early works. This is especially true of The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog.

Ivor Novello in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger - A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger was in fact the first film (as well as the only silent) in which Hitchcock developed his favourite theme: that of someone accused of a terrible crime and fleeing from justice. The police is investigating a series of murders in an area of London when a young man appears, seeking lodging with an elderly couple. The couple has a beautiful daughter, who is a perfect match for the muderer’s victims. They soon start to suspect that the young man may in fact be the killer, but they need evidence.

In my opinion, Hitchcock succeeds even better here than in many later films, such as The 39 Steps (1935) or Young and Innocent (1937), in upholding the suspense. Up until a few minutes from the end, the audience is never quite sure whether the protagonist is guilty or not.

Of all the films in Hitchcock’s output, this is perhaps the one that most clearly shows his debt to German Expressionism. A few years previously, he had been present during the filming of the great expressionist F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Der letzte Mann (1924), and the influence can be clearly seen here.

The Lodger was not only Hitchcock’s first suspense thriller, but also the first film where he made his famous cameo appearance. The reason is said to have been that he had to fill in for an extra who did not show up. The cameo is so hard to spot that there is no way I would have seen it if I had not known beforehand where to look, but if you want some sport you can try to spot him for yourself.

This film is best enjoyed by Hitchcock enthusiasts who want to explore the master’s early work, but it has quite unfairly fallen into the shadow of Hitchcock’s later production. The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog has many good qualities, and is quite able to stand on its own legs. In the category of silent suspense thriller, it holds up well to the competition. In addition, this was without a doubt the peak of Ivor Novello’s short career in the movies. The film is worth seeing for that reason alone, since he was a fine and unique actor.

Ivor Novello and June Tripp in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger - A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog
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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 10 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Ivor Novello
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (592×448)
Soundtrack: Excellent; orchestral music synchronised with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (804 M)

College (1927)

There can be no doubt, in my mind at least, that Buster Keaton was the master of comedy in the 1920s. Sure, Chaplin and Lloyd were also brilliant, each in his own way, but none of them reached Keaton’s levels in terms of perfection, athleticism and timing. He was, simply put, damn funny.

Lucky for us, then, that practically all of his best films are available at the Internet Archive. One good example, and one of my personal favourites, is College.

Buster Keaton playing baseball in College (1927)

Keaton here plays the bookworm Ronald who really wants to study to perfect his life, but the girl he falls in love with will only accept him if he joins the college with the best athletics, and proves that he can handle sports as well as books.

If you watch this film because you are interested in sports in the 1920s (not a very bad reason) then you will have to wait a while before the real athletic action starts. But it is worth the wait!

In addition to the sports, there are some absolutely wonderfully funny scenes with Keaton as a bartender. Well worth watching for those alone.

If you cannot stand silent film without a soundtrack, there is another copy with a piano score (not sure how good it is) but considerably lower image quality.

This film is best enjoyed by any fan of silent film in general or Buster Keaton in particular. Keaton really shows how to make a perfect comedy here.

Buster Keaton failing at the pole vault in College (1927)

College
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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 5 min
Director: James W Horne, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPG4 (933 M)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

 

1927 was a pivotal year in the history of film. A pivotal year, and also a great year.

The roaring twenties were still roaring and money was aplenty. For the past 15 years or so, the making of feature films had seen a rapid development from an unwieldy curiosity into a full-fledged art form. Not only had the use of angles and cutting improved vastly, but the cameras themselves were much more advanced and also more light-weight, allowing for shots that seem modern even today.

Artistically, Hollywood and Europe had gone in separate directions. Hollywood was producing masterworks in the adventure genre with stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino. In Germany, a very different style had developed, called German Expressionism. While Hollywood strived for realistic sets and fantastic action, the Germans used sets and techniques which placed the characters in dreamlike, deliberately unrealistic environments. The themes were often the supernatural and macabre.

One of the leading expressionists was F. W. Murnau, mostly remembered today for making Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), the first movie adaptation of Dracula. In the mid 20s he came to Hollywood to make an American expressionist film. The result was Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.

Sunrise is a true masterpiece, a groundbreaking film and one of the best silents ever made. It is not a horror film (although there are definitely elements of psychological terror in it), but rather a romantic drama. None of the characters are named. They remain throughout the film “The Man”, “The Wife”, and so on, creating perhaps a deliberate distance to the viewer.

George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Combining his own expressionistic visions with the money and craftsmanship of Hollywood, Murnau was able to create some amazing sets and a story which balances delicately between dream and reality. The acting is exquisite and if some of the character development may seem a bit extreme, that only serves to harmonize with the film’s dramatic imagery.

Sunrise stands as a symbol of the height of the silent film’s artistic achievements, but at the same time, that art form was already doomed. For that very same year another pivotal film was released: The Jazz Singer, the first feature film with synchronized sound. Within three years, this would mean the definite end of silent films, and with them the elegant but noisy cameras that made possible much of the visual technique. And that same period would also see the beginnings of the Great Depression. The 1930s would be a totally different society with totally different film-making, for better or worse.

This film is best enjoyed in a calm and relaxed mood.


Addendum, 2014-08-08: Since first writing this review, the version I linked to has been taken down, possibly because of copyright considerations regarding the score. I have now changed the link (and the relevant information below) to point to the only remaining version on the Internet Archive known to me. It has good music, free to distribute, but has low resolution. So low, in fact, that had that version been the only available at the time, this review would not have been written.


 

F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: F. W. Murnau
Stars: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Low (400×304)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Ogg (424 M)