Friday, October 16, 2015

Walter Ruttmann | Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis)

city of ghosts
by Douglas Messerli

Karl Freund, Carl Mayer, and Walter Ruttmann (writters), Walter Ruttmann (director) Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis) / 1927, USA 1928 / I attending the screening with Deborah Meadows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in connection with their show New Objectivity.

In the tradition of “city symphony” films such as Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921), Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926), Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Adalberto Kemeny’s São Paulo, Sinfonia de Metrópole (1929) and several other such works, Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis takes us through a day of that great city in a series of unconnected events that presumably emblematize life of the metropolis. Ruttmann’s work is particularly interesting in that it reveals a Berlin that only a few years later, after Hitler’s Germany became involved in World War II, would no longer exist, with about 30% of the former city leveled by Allied bombings.

     Yet Ruttmann’s work, unlike some of the others I named above, seems far from truly revelatory. While, for example, Vertov’s Kiev, filmed a year later, is a work literally heaving with human life and—because it is so clearly centered on its director hefting his camera into the most unlikely of situations—is a fairly comical work, Ruttmann’s city “celebration” seems a pretty dour affair, with few truly human interactions.

     Indeed the film begins with what might almost be described as one of its heroes, a train puffing across the countryside as it speeds early in the morning into the Berlin station. The city it portrays in the bleak gray dawn is a nearly desolate one, a city shuttered and closed, its vast 19th century brick and stone edifices almost suggesting that we have arrived in some fantastical outland, from which human life has been obliterated. The ghost of the past is expressed through leaves and paper blowing out of the corners into the empty streets. Berlin, in short, begins as a rather grim affair.
     Before long, however, a few gates are opened, maids and nurses, sweeping up around their workspaces or going about their way for early shopping, appear. More trains arrive, bringing with them workers who exit en masse to find their ways to what appear as derelict work houses (some appearing to be as desolate as the now-abandoned factories in the badlands of the New Jersey suburbs of New York).

     The workers, who occasionally greet one another, for the most part walk forward somewhat like walking ghosts, at one point the camera catching a mass of workers rising up from the subway who remind one of the travelers of “certain half-deserted streets” of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock.”
     Soon after, the metal covers over small shops are pulled up, blinds are raised in apartment complexes, windows opened. What begins as avenues filled with horse-drawn carts soon become vast thoroughfares filled with another of Ruttmann’s unspoken heroes, streetcars. Cars come out of unseen driveways and mix with the flow. Factories start up their vast mechanical creations, producing light bulbs, sheets of metal, bottles of milk, and piles of bread loaves.  

     Workers arrive at their offices, putting out their writing materials, typewriters are uncovered and women, mostly, go into a mad typing frenzy; telephones are picked up and returned to their cradles—all actions that, as my friend Deborah Meadows whisperingly reminded me, younger people today have never experienced.
     Indeed, one of the film’s charms is the kind of quaintness of its gestures, featuring stuffed animals and wound-up tin and plastic creatures advertising various products and purveyor’s, while presenting us with visages of vast signage the like of which today exists, perhaps, only in New York’s Times Square. Trains puff in an out of town within inches of apartment windows. Children play among horse manure and mud. 
     Like the artists of the LACMA show “New Objectivity,” Ruttmann seems particularly interested in children, often seen punching one another, bullying other minors, and, in some cases, kicking at other children’s baby carriages and toys. One small girl with a baby carriage is overwhelmed by the impossibility of taking her small body and carriage up impossibly steep steps wherein, we must presume, she resides. The numerous children of Berlin, in short, are seldom charming or cute, but are represented more as mean-spirited small adults, a bit like Oskar Matzerath in Grass’ post-war classic The Tin Drum.
      Predictably, the wail of a siren signifies lunch, as thousands of adults pour from offices and homes, rushing to street-side stands for the German favorite of Frankfurters and grilled sausages or pushing into swanky restaurants where, again they dine on platters of sausage or order up highly decorated dishes that soon after will, like the many bedding-down animals Ruttmann interpolates between his city frames, put them to sleep. Some children are seen dining on the slops. 
      The impatient tap of a dining customer’s spoon against his coffee cup calls all back to work, as Ruttmann’s screen once again goes into a literal whirl (one of his favorite devices being the spinning wheel of the hypnotist). A montage of newspaper headlines reading “Mord” (murder), “Börse (market), “Krise” (crisis), “Heirat” (marriage), and “Geld” (money) punctuates this 4th act of the film, as the director hurries his city into a literal storm, with the wind rising and leaves scurrying across the suddenly-wet streets. Department store doors revolve before our faces and we are taken on a roller coaster ride, as a woman clings to the edge of a bridge before throwing her body into the river below it, a mass of people gathering to speculate on the cause of her suicide.

     Masses of children play in a lake and soon participate in skating exhibitions, hockey games, and other athletic contests. A few couples gather upon benches to smooch before night falls.
     For the final act of his visual symphony, Ruttmann takes us into the dark night of wet streets which beautifully reflect the massive neon signs of restaurants, night clubs, theaters, and other evening pleasures. In and out we speed with Ruttmann’s camera into light and grand opera companies, bars, burlesque shows, and variety presentations of jugglers and trapeze artists. For a second we enter a film palace to observe the lower portion of a film image we immediately recognize as Charlie Chaplin. 
    Dancers come together and part. Women flirt, are picked up, and taken to grand hotels, the participants ignoring a boy beggar. In some bars men stand about as if waiting for the arrival of women, in other beer halls men and women sing, roulette wheels are spun, and, finally, the whole screen goes into a spin ending with fireworks and the movie’s close. Nowhere in Ruttmann’s Berlin are the numerous gay and lesbian bars or the late-evening and night heterosexual or homosexual prostitutes and boy pick-ups! Ruttmann’s Berlin may be a bit wild, but it is never truly perverse—in part because it doesn’t really deal with the real denizens of the metropolis it claims be revealing, presenting all figures, rather, as types. Only his children have encounters, and those, as I’ve noted, are often abrasive and foreboding. These were the children, after all, of Hitler’s Jungen bund.
    Although throughout this film there is often a kind of exciting rhythm of image, movement, and gesture, on the whole, Ruttmann’s 24-hour travelogue is not a very endearing one.

Los Angeles, October 16, 2015

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