Here we are in the penultimate day in the 2017 edition of the Decades Blogathon. It’s been a really fun one to co-host yet again with the sterling Mark from Three Rows Back. With any luck this is a trend that will continue, it’s just so great having the contributions we’ve had three years in a row. So with that, I’d like to clear the floor for the featured reviewer of today — Charles from the wonderful blog, Cinematic. Please do check out his site if you have some time.
Although cinema has always been continuously evolving since its inception, 1927 is perhaps the critical turning point in film. That year saw the debut of The Jazz Singer, the first major “talkie” that led to silent cinema’s decline and introduced the concept of spoken dialogue to the screen. 1927 also greeted audiences with the inceptions of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, two films that epitomized the power of silent era of cinema within the medium’s final years.
Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis is of equal note to the above- mentioned films. An example of the burgeoning “city symphony” genre, Berlin is a quasi-documentary capturing the vibrant life and activity within a single day of the eponymous German capital. Alongside Robert Siodmak and Edgar Ulmer’s People on Sunday, Berlin details German society’s naivety and supposed innocence before the rise of the Third Reich and the horrors of World War II.
Translating the theory of Soviet montage to German cinema, Ruttmann sought to utilize Eisenstein-esque editing to capture the breath of movement and action throughout Berlin. Ruttman opens his picture with a series of abstract images replicating a sunrise, before abruptly cutting from two animated bars dropping across the screen to railroad gates closing. The director utilizes an array of similar graphic and spatial match cuts linking the many objects of Berlin together. Like the Soviets, Ruttmann appears fascinated by the connection between man and machine, combining the motions of city dwellers and bystanders to that of cars, trains, and bicycles. Through such juxtaposition, Ruttmann appears to be noting that urbanites, like technology itself, are becoming increasingly organized and mechanical within the modern world due to the demanding schedule they are enslaved to.
While Ruttmann well replicates the excitement of the Soviet montage to Berlin, the film isn’t able to quite sustain the level of exhilaration throughout its duration, and too often it feels that the director has stymied his work through repetitive shots of bystanders that lose their thrills after a while. The ending too feels abrupt, lacking a climactic conclusion that rivals a film like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Although Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera may have opened two years after Berlin, it better captures the fury and elation of the Soviet montage within the city symphony genre; in that comparison, Movie Camera is Berlin on steroids.
Yet despite its shortcomings juxtaposed to Man with a Movie Camera, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis is a remarkable landmark in cinematic history that introduced the Soviet montage to the western world. Like Sunrise and Metropolis, Berlin symbolized the massive changes cinema would embark throughout the rest of the 20th century and encapsulates silent film just as the medium began to disappear.