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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Chelovek s kino-apparatom (1929)

It is easy today to dismiss silent film as “sound film without sound”, but that is a mistake based on our preconceived notions. Silent film is, for a fact, a different medium, and when it works at its very best, that medium is not inferior to sound film. Just different.

In the late 1920s, just before the break-through of sound film, the silent film had its artistic peak. At that point, some directors were experimenting with silence as an added dimension to the film, putting the images and their inherent story-telling abilities more in focus. One of them was Russian Dziga Vertov with his Chelovek s kino-apparatom (Man with a Movie Camera).

The cameraman in Chelovek s kino-apparatom, aka Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

It is relevant to ask whether Chelovek s kino-apparatom is documentary or propaganda. Well, in a sense it is neither. And both. Less and more. To the extent that the film has a story, it is the story of a man who goes around with a movie camera, filming whatever he chances to find. An onrushing train. People in a car. Even a woman giving birth (which is one of the film’s most powerful scenes, incidentally). But this thematic thread is so thin that we, the viewers, tend to forget all about it in the fascination over the fantastic imagery and visual playfulness that holds the film together. Since the film contains practically no title cards, the film’s messages are conveyed solely by means of the images.

To state that Chelovek s kino-apparatom should be watched without a soundtrack is, of course, to stretch things a bit too far. Vertov intended the film to be viewed with instrumental accompaniment. But at the same time it must be remembered that each of the many soundtracks that have been produced for this film gives it a different flavour, and in effect creates a different film. Therefore, in a sense, it may not be altogether a bad thing that the version available at the Internet Archive is without a soundtrack. It creates an incentive to watch the film bare-bones, and will perhaps allow the viewer to see the scenes from a fresh perspective. One that would not be possible with a recently written soundtrack, one which carries with it the composer’s interpretation of the images.

This film is best enjoyed if you want to explore some of silent cinema’s greatest moments.

A childbirth in Chelovek s kino-apparatom, aka Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Chelovek s kino-apparatom
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Year: 1929
Running time: 1 h 7 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Directors: Dziga Vertov
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (620×418; not counting black border)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)