Berlin symphonies

Back on (my) home turf, this week’s documentaries continue with two views of Berlin.

Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (“Berlin – The Symphony of the Metropolis”) dates from 1927 and depicts a day in the life of the city in a scored, silent montage of documentary footage. This is the giant, frantic mechanism of a metropolis described by Joseph Roth in his Berlin articles. The film opens in deceptive stillness with a scene of gently lapping waters before boarding a high-speed train journey to the city, the first notable human presence a solitary dog walker, later joined by great swelling tides of humanity.

Naturally the editing creates a narrative, pushed along by the filmmakers in places. One particularly false note involves a hammy depiction of a suicide which falls as flat as the victim herself. This sense of “orchestrated” reality would be more fully exploited in the later People on Sunday, which blended narrative and documentary footage. Ruttmann’s film is at its considerable best when it steps back and observes.

From 2002 comes Thomas Schadt’s Berlin: Sinfonie einer Großstadt (“Berlin – Symphony of a Metropolis”), not so much a remake as a reinterpretation of the 1927 film, the article now indefinite in recognition that, for better or worse, post-reunification Berlin is just another city.

Like Ruttmann’s film, Sinfonie einer Großstadt is shot in black and white, with an orchestral score. It picks up 75 years later with an opening sequence of fireworks. Watch these films closely enough and you’ll find all sorts of parallels, but what struck me most about the more recent depiction is how much slower, less industrial and depopulated Berlin seems. True, the city has shed close to a million people since the 1920s and has lost much of its industry, but the scars of destruction and division are echoed by a greater sense of absence in the city, a loss of dynamism.

As well as the kick of seeing familiar locations, including the canal at the end of my street, I found a moment of unexpectedly topical humour. A bus drives past with an ad announcing the opening of the new Berlin airport in 2007, i.e. five years hence. In fact, it has been subject to repeated, scandalous delays. It was supposed to open in a few weeks from now, but has just been pushed back – once again – to later this year.

Finally the images dissolve into lapping waters, bringing everything back in a great loop to the beginning of Ruttmann’s masterpiece.

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