Edmund Meisel and Walter Ruttmann in Berlin - Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927)


BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY (Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt)

(director: Walter Ruttmann; screenwriters: Karl Freund/Carl Mayer; cinematographers: Laszlo Schäffer/Robert Baberske/Reimar Kuntze; editor: Walter Ruttmann; music: Edmund Meisel; cast: Paul von Hindenburg (Himself); Runtime: 65; MPAA Rating: NR; Quality Information Publishers; 1927-silent-Germany-in German with English subtitles)

“Outdated but still fine as an historical curio.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Walter Ruttmann (“Düsseldorf “/”Steel”/”Deutsche Panzer”) directs this once avant-garde silent documentary that’s outdated but still fine as an historical curio. It’s a visual poem on the bustling civilized Berlin during its post-depression period, just prior to its nightmarish takeover by the Nazis (interestingly showing Jews walking freely in the streets). It follows the ordinary everyday life of the Berliner from early morning to midnight (going to work, shopping and downtown dancing at night or attending a Tom Mix film). New filming techniques were used, as Ruttmann was influenced by the Russians, in particular Vertov and the “kino-eye” group. Though this film is not up to Vertov’s masterpiece The Man With A Movie Camera (1928), it still does a nice job using a series of montages accompanied by an Edmund Meisel symphonic score tacked on 1930 to capture the pulse of the big city.

The great Karl Freund led a team of cinematographers, whereby most of the footage was shot with cameras hidden inside vehicles or suitcases–guerrilla style. There’s footage of the then President Paul von Hindenburg, factory smoke stacks, children going to school, the railroad yards, ice hockey, a milk factory, the crowded rush hour streets and the trolleys, and the neon lights of the nightspots.

The innovations of Ruttmann have all been imitated many times over, so the once fresh appeal of the fast editing cuts are no longer fresh. What remains intact is the rich style and the overall effect of the ‘impressionistic’ visuals.