Monday, January 5, 2009

'Berlin: Symphony of a Great City' (1927) - A Silent Film Masterpiece by Walter Ruttmann

Align Center

I've stayed in Berlin twice - once before the wall went down, and then again in 2003. I'd first become more than casually focussed on the city reading the novels of Christopher Isherwood. And then, during my second visit, by the ubiquitous and all-consuming concern over the lingering 'atmosphere of uncertainty', a collective state of mind which had gripped the metropolis since the Cold War and failed to dissipate after 1989. The largest city in Europe still only has a population of 3.3 million - New York is 20. For me, every day there seemed a Sunday.

So this film naturally caught my attention when it crossed my path.

It has innovative techniques for the period. But more importantly a strong pulsing rhythm which irresistibly carries you along, through the whole of this semi-documentary.

From slow glassy ripplings over water which gradually transmute into passing railway sleepers and carriage windows. And then telegraph poles. And, in a reverse angle from the carriage, out over houses and tenements and factories - as the train enters a still intact early C20 Berlin.

And on and on through this extraordinary film.

It's day break and the capital stirs. Long shots of down dark deserted misty streets. And scenes of workerless factory interiors. Shop window displays of women's lingerie.

The rhythm of the day begins, first signaled by a single piece of paper gently blown along a gutter. A man finally comes into the empty set, walking his dog. A cat skulks by, maybe mouse-bound. A few more people - and the pace imperceptibly quickens. Doors and windows open in cavalcade. In businesses and homes. The sun rises, throwing the first atmospheric shadows of the day.

And the symphony of the great city begins.

Through the rush of the working day.

And into the wilder activity of the evening jazz age clubs and bars.

A great watch!


  1. It looks oppressive and bleak to me.

  2. hey victor

    this is the first 10 minutes - the film ends up in the weimer republic / roaring 20's nightclubs and is anything but bleak and oppressive

    find it atmospheric in the context of where the film goes and ends up

    take care


  3. I've watched the film three times and will probably watch it again. Each time, of course, I see something different. Thanks for posting it. Take care.

  4. hey wit

    it's pretty compelling viewing - i've done the same

    this is the URL for the next part of the film (the other parts of the film are in the 'related videos' section at that URL)

    hope you enjoy the rest as much as i have!

    tell me your reactions if you have time

    take care


  5. fascinating and enthralling thks for sharing

  6. hey anon

    glad to share

    i posted the URLs for the rest of the movie (in parts) in a comment

    enjoy if you have time!

    take care


  7. Berlin the largest city in Europe? London is the largest connurbation closely followed by Paris. Both metropolitan and surrounding suburban areas are similar in size to NYC.

  8. hey anon

    in europe there are great disputes about the size of cities - all depending on what criterion you use - london is sometimes considered in terms of the Greater London and sometimes more the CBD

    i was primarily thinking of the experience of walking these large cities - and berlin seemed enormous compared with london (where i lived for the better part of a decade) and paris (between one and two years)

    and i think the 'centre' of berlin grew after WW2 rather more quickly than other cities being two capitals in one - east and west berlin.

    incidentlayy, i remember going thru check point charlie into east berlin and being peeped at through a hole in a wall before being issued with a day visa - as though i would do degenerate visa rejecting behaviour if i thought i was not being observed!

    thanks for commenting again!

    take care


  9. One Who Lived To Regret It.January 11, 2009 at 12:32 PM

    I thought the film was interesting. The railway footage in the beginning was amazing! Did you catch the inbound train was carrying a number of those old wooden sleeping and dining cars? it must have been one of the overnight expresses from the south of Germany, because it was shown arriving in the greatest of all Berlin terminii, Anhalter Bahnhof. This beautiful station was totally destroyed in one night during the war, only a tiny portion of the arrival porch remains as a memorial.

    Great posting Nick, as always.

  10. hey josh my friend

    kewl you like the film!

    it's silent being 1927 but had a music track accompaniment by Edmund Meisel

    you have a great eye for detail! this film is full of good stuff like that and makes you watch it more than once - well, at least i did!

    and thanks for the detail about the old station - when i've been in berlin i'm always been amazed how how little left from the past.

    on my first visit i went to see the Pergamon Alter - a greek temple of the 2nd century BC, brought in its entirety from the turkey. what was amazing was the fact that at the time the museum was as it was after the war - the decoration of the rooms was in a C19 style - each room had a frieze at the top of each wall that signaled the time and country of its exhibits.

    great to hear from you again!