not in our stars, but in ourselves
Once upon a time, the wordless documentary film about a place was somewhat popular. The best known example is probably Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929) – a Soviet slice-of-life exploration as conducted by Vertov’s roving “kino eye.” I have always much preferred Walther Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) – a documentary about the most happening city of the twentieth century, arranged as symphonically as its title suggests. It’s nearly required viewing for any and all film students, as well as anyone even remotely interested in Germany during the wild and crazy Weimar Republic. And, I mean, really – who’s not interested in those 14 years of reckless abandon?
It would be remiss of me to describe Berlin in terms of a plot, because it is merely (!) an hour of shots of the city. Proceeding in chronological order, the film shows everything from the empty streets at dawn to the bustling commutes to work; the hectic life of a factory worker as well as the hedonistic nightlife of that most hedonistic of cities. Where Vertov obviously injected Soviet ideals into his otherwise happy, bustling little film, Ruttmann doesn’t bother with ideology. Thank heaven for that. Nothing more boring than a filmmaker trying to make a political point. Although…well, more on that in a moment.
The film is arranged in five “acts,” each one approximately ten minutes long. Each has a roughly unifying theme, rather like different symphonic movements: there is a central theme, and variations, and then a crashing finish. Movement, indeed, is the key in more than a musical/symphonic sense (though that particular wordplay may not work in German; you cunning linguists out there will have to let me know): Ruttmann’s camera is active, frenetic at times, mimicking emotions and thought patterns with the motion of a roller coaster at times; racing along the railroad tracks as a train hurtles into Berlin’s station; and then there are the actual scenes he captures. Dog fights, fisticuffs, bobbing toys, showgirls, swirling currents of water. This isn’t a tranquil city.
You probably won’t be surprised to know that my favorite part of the whole thing is the nightlife section. Ever since seeingPandora’s Box, I’ve been enchanted by 1920s Berlin night/wildlife – and while the dancing girls in Berlin aren’t quite as exquisitely shot and lit as G.W. Pabst’s Lulu, they are just as exciting because they were real. Maybe I’m alone here (probably, forever), but I just love watching archival footage of the 1920s. And I especially love watching archival footage of dancers – the saucier, the better.
Normally, in my reviews of movies of this time and place, I go off on long-winded tangents about how nearly everything in the film is some sort of reflection of the angst in the national psyche; how there are hints of the rise of Nazism (or at least, the rise of a need for someone who would be able to control Germany effectively); how there are signposts in every character and plot that relate to feelings of both guilt and revenge. Isn’t it funny that in Berlin, a documentary, I have nothing of the sort to say? Everyone, and everything, seems so normal. We don’t see, for instance, the insanity of post-war inflation. We don’t see the rampant unemployment, or the disabled and destitute war veterans living on the streets. We don’t see their wives and daughters working in the streets. Why, I wondered. Why this aversion to the truth? It’s a lovely film, don’t mistake me, but why lovely, for crying out loud? Haven’t you ever seen a Grosz painting, or heard a Brecht/Weill song? This wasn’t a lovely time. Fascinating, vibrant, yes – but not lovely.
Well, as it turns out, I am going to step up onto a bit of a historical soapbox. Ruttmann, as it turned out, made propaganda films for the Nazis once they came to power. Whether he did this because he believed in their message, felt obliged to, or was too scared to do anything else, I don’t know or especially want to know; but if I had to judge, based on this rather rosy vision of Berlin during a time that was anything but, I’d say he was a little more interested in ideals than in reality – and that was one of the Nazis many stocks in trade. Sigh.