Love letter to a bygone Berlin

Released 23 September 1927, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City) is a classic of the avant-garde city symphony, which was most popular in the Twenties and Thirties. These films documented the everyday life of major cities, and were highly influenced by modern art schools such as Cubism, Impressionism, and Constructivism.

As an avant-garde film documenting the people, events, and places of a city, there’s no true plot. The only real story trajectory is showing the passage of time through a day, from sunup to nightfall. Recurring, connecting motifs are streetcars and trains. Scenes and images are put together based upon thematic content, POV, motion, and images.

Urban audiences loved city symphonies, because they could recognize familiar landmarks, people they knew, and even themselves. This film is particularly precious because it documents Berlin as it used to be, before so much of it was destroyed during WWII.

Hotel Excelsior, once Europe’s largest and most luxurious hotel, and the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminal are among the landmarks which didn’t survive the war.

Act I opens with calm waters, sunrise, and a train steaming into Berlin. We see the placid, empty streets before the city wakes up. Gradually, more and more people appear in the streets.

The pedestrians and commuters represent a wide range of Berliners—schoolchildren, the working-class, soldiers, businessmen, factory workers, housewives.

Act I closes with scenes of busily-working machinery in a factory—making lightbulbs, pouring steel, pushing and rotating glass bottles along assembly lines, cutting sheets of metal, belching smokestacks.

Act II opens with shutters, doors, windows, and gates opening. We also see kids going to school, people cleaning, fruit carts, shops opening, and people beginning the workday. Depending upon class, they walk or take the streetcar, bus, or private, chauffeured cars.

Office-workers set out writing instruments and paper, roll open desks, open books, and set up typewriters. The typists become a montage of a hypnotist’s spinning wheel, phone operators, monkeys biting one another, fighting dogs, machinery, and the other work in the office.

Act II ends with phones hanging up.

Act III shows shoppers and salespeople, construction workers, window displays, fights, industrial workers, cops, flirtations, a father and daughter arriving by a wedding, a diplomat, a coffin on a hearse, the Reich president, a protestor lecturing a crowd, a student organization marching with banners, trains, and newspapers.

Act III ends with many newspapers, held up to the camera, dissolving into one another.

Act IV begins with lunch break. A factory’s spinning wheels halt as 12:00 arrives, and workers go home or to cafés. Animals as well as humans eat and drink. Shots of a wealthy diner are interspersed with those of poor street children hugging their mother and a lion feeding on meat from a bone.

Some people and animals rest during the break, including poor people sleeping on benches and ledges, all while Berlin continues to bustle all around them. When a diner bangs his spoon on a bowl, the city springs back to life.

There’s a montage of trains, roller coasters, revolving doors, wind, rain, leaf cyclones, churning water, fighting dogs, crowds, people looking over a rail into water, eyes, and a splash. The city then returns to calm, as the workday ends and fun begins.

Act IV ends with kids playing in a lake, racing boats, games and races, and couples on park benches at nightfall.

Act V is all about nightlife. House lights and electric signs come on, people go to the theatre, and curtains rise on many types of shows—burlesque, trapeze, juggling, dancing, singing. In a movie theatre, Charlie Chaplin’s feet and cane are at the bottom of a screen.

Other nightlife includes skating, indoor racing, sledding, skiing, hockey, boxing, dance contests, ice shows, beer halls, card games, cocktail lounges. However, the workday isn’t over for the transportation industry.

It all ends with a spinning montage of fireworks and light from an electric tower.

One of the reasons I love old films so much is because they’re a time capsule of a long-vanished world. With this film, there’s also the haunting wonder about how many of these people survived the war, and who might’ve become hardcore Nazis, garden variety Nazis, or people who resisted.

This is a great way to explore avant-garde. There also aren’t any intertitles. It’s a portrait of a living, breathing city, in a language that transcends words.

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