Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis

The movie under consideration is entitled Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, and it was made in 1927. The director of the film is Walter Ruttmann, a German artist, a filmmaker, and a brilliant representative of avant-garde cinematography. In this movie, Ruttmann’s use of montage is considered as innovative one, and it was appreciated by his contemporaries.

In fact, the movie illustrates the time spirit of urban life of Weimar Germany in 1920s. Ruttmann showed the life of Berlin in full scope. However, the movie shows the silent theme of Berlin’s industrialization and commerce, which fetishizes the scientific and technical progress. The movie was made in seven years after the end of the First World War. In that time, Germans had undergone traumatic defeat, humiliating reparation of the Versailles Treaty, and an attempted revolution, which combined forces of Social Democrats and the military. What had been Europe’s most powerful economic was now damaged. Many working- and middle-class people lost their savings, and massive material shortage caused the inflation that also damaged a lot of lives. However, all these are the results of human activity that created such process as industrialization, urbanization, etc. (Petro 97).


The picture of machinery and the usage of other progressive means is hamstringed by much irony. To the large extent, the movie is permeated with pessimism, and there is a reason for it. In the 1920s, the modernization of Berlin subsumed into the individuals’ lives, and people were under the influence of different factors. The relentless force of capitalism and commerce dictated the rhythms of human’s lives. Furthermore, there was a little space for individualism in the process of urbanization. Therefore, the main motives are pessimistic and the reason for it is the loss of individuality. With each shot, Ruttmann depicts the inhabitants of the city as homogeneous mass. From this point, one can consider that the main innovation of the film is not the montage, but the usage of shots that illustrate the experience of the city life. Through the shots and associative montage, the movie serves as the insidious reminder of dehumanizing urban life. Therefore, socio-historical background of the movie is urbanization, which dictated the rhythms of human life. Apart from it, the economic background is the rise of capitalism and commerce that swallowed up the society (Bratton and Denham 57).

In all perspectives, the film begins with the sunrise and a train travel from countryside. Besides, the viewer can see rapidly moving railroads, which are, in some sense, parenthesis to chaotic urban life. The opening of the movie and the opening of the day are both symbolic; these two images create special atmosphere for a further action in order to dip the viewer into the issue that was created by capitalism and urbanization. In the first five minutes of the movie, no living person is seen; however, buildings and streets have some special meaning. All these serve as a framework for individuals and money that fill up the vessel of urban life (Weitz 68). They circulate there from day to day and create both possibilities and constraints for people’s lives.

In fact, there are many parallels and antitheses in the movie that are achieved in different ways. First of all, Ruttmann’s representation of machines in the movie, in some sense, is a parallel to the representation of city’s inhabitants. Throughout the movie there are shots of factories and machinery, sometimes showing their overall function, however, limiting close-up shots of turning wheel of other mechanism; thus, in this way, the viewer cannot actually understand what is being done. Similarly, the viewer can see people, from shot to shot they do their activities, but it is hard to say precisely what they are doing. However, as people populate the city, it becomes clear that they are organized by money and time. As it was suggested above, on the one hand, railroads illustrate the chaos in urban life, and on the other hand, people who function in their frameworks illustrate the order. Therefore, with these two arguments it is possible to conclude that the order of chaotic urban life is the main motive of the movie.

As it was mentioned above, the city life is permeated with machinery and urbanization processes that regulate human work and leisure. From the first scene, the viewer’s attention is fully concentrated on machinery. Moreover, machinery serve people by carrying them, providing lighting and entertainment. In the movie, the mechanization is illustrated as something beautiful, and sometimes machines even take human qualities like the sweating engine in the Act 1. In some sense, machines control people by their onerous regularities.

Therefore, a specific relation between people and machines can be observed in this movie. One of the most illustrative examples of this relation is the opening arrival scene. The arrival functions as the prelude that introduces the visual synopsis of the movie’s central themes. The opening shot is filled with the plane of rippling water. The cameras start to move more rapidly. Moreover, the speed of the following gradually accelerates. In this condition, the shot of water is first overlaid; however, then, it is replaced by the shot of two hand-made surfaces of thin black and white band, laid one on the top of other. Further, these two surfaces move up and down the screen, and they create special contrast that mimes transparency, depth of the watery surface, and rippling undulations. After that, a rectangle and large white colored circle come into sign, and they move up and down through the bands in accelerating half-circular motions. However, some of the white bands are separated from the frame and arc downwards. They are accompanied with the rapid cut to the photographic shot of two trains that move towards Berlin with the signals (Widdig 58).

There are several points that Ruttmann wanted to emphasize in this introduction. Moreover, there are thematic relationships: first of all, the director tells about the status of the film, and what it means. With the help of photographic register, he shows the physical world. In its own nature, this documentary is constructed in such a way that it influences the viewer by contrasting the picture. Ruttmann makes it through several devices such as tempo, disorientation, and technological construction. Viewing this movie more deeply, one can note that there is some connection between a train travel and a human life. Taking into consideration the abovementioned, the train travel is associated with industrialization. This train travels by the railroads, which are tangled as people’s lives. In fact, Ruttmann puts industrialization on the first plan. However, industrialization, capitalism, commerce, and the loss of individualism are interrelated. Therefore, the viewer can find fibers of this relation by simply viewing first pessimistic scenes of the movie.

Ruttmann tried to make all above-mentioned process more vivid. In order to realize this idea, he uses several tactics. Firstly, he uses positions of the camera, and he simply puts cameras inside the train; therefore, the viewer receives the vision of the passengers and many effects influence the spectator: disorientation, change, instability of visual world, etc. Ruttmann simply shows people how the speed of technology and therefore human life gets too high. The one can notice how Ruttmann takes viewer through the varying degree of clarity, and all that depends upon technological speed.

The first scene of the movie can be interpreted in different ways. However, there is one interesting opinion regarding this issue, and it was made by Anton Kaes, the Professor of German and Film at UC Berkeley. Kaes points out that the movie has structural affinity to the itinerant migrant. The time that viewers spend in the city and the life experience they get make the interpretation possible. However, in that time, there were a lot of migrants and immigrants in Berlin, who were new to acquire this kind of experience. Therefore, the film illustrates the historical bond between urbanization, inhabitants, and modernity (Kaes 77).

To sum up, there is no doubt that the film of Walter Ruttmann was innovative in the 1920s. Moreover, the movie raised the issues that were of immediate interest, and the director made his best to represent them in the best way. The silent film is ironically called symphony. However, the movie has the rhythm, which makes even a certain melody. This is achieved by the montage, visual effects, etc. As a result, the film is a rather industrial symphony of any megalopolis, not just Berlin. The film has a master montage, and each shot creates the impressionistic picture of the city life. Each frame or fragment is in dialogue with the viewer, and it creates a variety of musical shades. The director did not try to create dramatic dynamics, but the film is divided into acts and has a tangible rhythm, which is emphasized by the score. By the end of each part, the director makes enhancement of pace; figuratively, it is expressed through the powerful mechanisms of life such as trains, machinery, etc. An industrial rhythm created a new poetry. Now, one person has less influence, and the loss of individualism is visible as never before. Therefore, the viewer can see another world, where people live as a homogeneous mass.

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