Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City is a beautiful portrait of a day-in-the-life of the German capital. Made in 1927, the film is perhaps too beautiful, its carefully composed images present a story of the city’s aesthetics, rather a biography of its inhabitants.
Based on an idea by Carl Meyer, who withdrew from the production after disagreements with Ruttmann’s “superficial” stylized approach to depicting life in the city. Ruttmann saw the project as a “symphonic film [made] out of the millions of energies that comprise the life of a big city”.
It took over a year to film, with cinematographers Relmar Kuntze, Robert Baberske and Laszlo Shaffer, hiding their cameras in suitcases and vans to achieve an incredibly naturalistic effect. The camera is passive, like Isherwood’s Herr Issyvoo, observing with little comment, creating any sense of drama through use of editing and montage, a style inspired by Soviet film-maker Dziga Vertov.
Eighty-four years on from its release, Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City is still a beautiful and compelling film, which captured Berlin in its last days before the horrors of Nazism.
Unfortunately, the original score to accompany the film has been lost, so choose your own soundtrack to create your own mini-cinematic experience.
With thanks to Stefan Arngrim