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Ruttman's Berlin

Filmnotes to Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927) Walter Ruttmann

The creator of the early abstract films Opus I, II, III and IV, began this, probably his best know film, in 1926.  Ruttmann directed the film and collaborated with Carl Mayer (a screen writer who had co-written the script for Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari), Karl Freund (the director of Fox-Europe Production), and Lore Leudesdorff who had already assisted Ruttmann with Opus III andIV.  Rather than write a conventional script Ruttmann devised a card system that allowed for flexibility and reshuffling of ideas for scenes and the overall structure of the film.  In addition to written notes for an idea, a card included specifications about the length of the scene, the desired atmosphere, and a visual sketch, a mini-storyboard so to speak.  The music that accompanies the film was written by Edmund Meisel who also directed the orchestra at the film’s public opening at the Tauentzien-Palast in Berlin.  Ruttmann and Meisel worked closely together aiming at a harmonious whole consisting of images and music, and Meisel described the music as a “conglomerate of the various sounds of a metropolis”.

Since creating his purely abstract Opus films Ruttmann had made a number of advertisement films for Julius Pinschewer, had worked on Paul Wegener’s film Lebende Buddhas, had created the dream sequence for Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, and had made the beginning sequence, some of the background imagery, and other scenes for Lotte Reininger’s silhouette film Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed.  His advertisement films combined abstract with representational imagery and color with black and white sequences, and his contributions to the feature films meant, of course, that his largely abstract images were subsumed within a larger, representational whole.  These were precisely the two uses of purely abstract filmic images that the critics of the absolute film approved of.  By the time he began Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, Ruttmann had come to the conclusion that he needed representational imagery to accomplish his vision in film.  He explained his change of heart as a break from but also as a continuity with his earlier absolute films.  The Berlin film was a break, he suggested, in that it deals with representational images rather than with purely abstract forms.  He also mentioned that he wanted to reach a larger audience which suggests that he took some of the negative criticism of his Opus films to heart.  However, Ruttmann also saw a continuity between his absolute films and Berlin in that the latter retains the basic structure of the first and bases itself on the same “rhythmic-dynamic laws of film” and on “filmic counterpoint”.

Berlin, Symphony of a Great City is one among a number of city films of the 1920s, including Manhatta (1924) by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, Rien que les heures (1926) by Alberto Cavalcanti, and Moscow (1927) by Ilya Kopalin and Mikhail Kaufman.  Beyond the scope of film, Berlin can be seen as part of an engagement with the city by the other arts as well.  For instance, parallels have been drawn between this film and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) as well as George Grosz’s images of the metropolis.

Ruttmann’s film was a success but it did not meet everybody’s expectations.  Among the criticism leveled against the film, the most persistent was that it excluded the human being.  Critics, Siegfried Kracauer among them, felt that it was superficial because of its interest in the aesthetics of the city at the expense of its human element, and they criticized the film for not showing a more detailed, geographically accurate, portrait of their city.  Some reviewers were at a loss what to make of the film.  Because of the absence of a clear and conventional narrative they could not detect the content or meaning of the film and felt that this lack of narrative self-explanation was its failure.  Remaining essentially true to his beliefs about what makes film filmic, Ruttmann, of course, never intended the film to be conventionally narrative.  His idea was to make, as the title suggests, a city symphony.  He was not after a psychological or geographical portrait of Berlin.  In this film as in his purely abstract films Ruttmann is interested in the dynamism of movement and shapes, in this case those found in Berlin, and he aimed at making the viewer experience Berlin phenomenologically.  Nevertheless the film is structured in a quasi-narrative way showing us the arrival in the city, its awakening, mid-day rest, busy afternoon life, and evening leisure.  Many contemporary critics compared its structure to that of a symphony.  Whether that is the case or not, it is interesting to note how the dynamism of the film is produced.  There are only very rare instances in Berlin in which the camera moves of its own accord, that is, without being on a moving vehicle of some sort.  The film shares this essentially static and passive camera with the Opus films.  Ruttmann relies on editing, on a montage based on analogy and contrast, to infuse the film with dynamism.