What is a City Symphony? City Symphonies are motion pictures that capture the spirit and uniqueness of a city by assembling images of everyday life in that city. The classic City Symphony genre was a silent, black and white, avant-garde documentary that first appeared in the 1920s. As in a symphony, they have movements that vary in pace and intensity. These movies bombard our sight with images of a city (images that often are quite surrealistic) in order to capture its heartbeat and expose its soul. This style of film, usually made by experimental filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov and Walter Ruttmann, was a perfect marriage of the medium of filmmaking and the subject matter of cities, since both were products of a 19th century modernity that peaked in the 1920s.
Directors of City Symphonies
Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand
The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling
waters! the city of spires and masts!
The city nested in bays! my city!
MANNAHATTA - Walt Whitman
In 1921 two Americans, Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), a painter, and Paul Strand (l890-1976), a still photographer, made a one reel documentary film based on the Walt Whitman poem "Mannahatta." The motion picture version, spelled
, is an abstract study of New York City that expresses the greatness of the city by manipulating the images portrayed on the screen. What made this film different from previous movies of the type later called documentaries was that it explored the potentials of the movie camera to produce a film that was at the same time a factual representation of the city as well as an expression of art that aroused aesthetic emotions about the metropolis.
Sheeler founded the Precisionist School of art in both painting and photography. A Precisionist Artist concentrates on architectural detail, such as steel beams, window crossbars, or cables etc., to the point where we see not the whole building, factory, or bridge but an abstract image. Sheeler skillfully blended the three art forms of painting, photography, and film. He often displayed his paintings next to his photography. Further, he actually made some of his photographs from frames of his movie,
The six-minute film,
gave birth to a genre later known as the City Symphony.
depicts a typical day in New York City from dawn until dusk. With
, Sheeler used film as an art medium. When viewing the movie notice the shadows on the buildings and shots looking down on the city through balustrades. While indeed a study of the city,
can not be called a City Symphony because it lacks the structure of a symphony, that is, in Manhatta we do not get the sense of musical movements where one scene plays against another to the point where we can almost hear the heartbeat of the city. In fact, the movie reminds me of experiments I did as a twelve year old with a 8mm movie camera; shooting hanging out of a window or laying on the ground. (A movie of the same era,
A Bronx Morning
(1931) by Alfred Stieglitz gives an even stronger impression of this.) By no means am I saying that Sheeler and his partner, Paul Strand, were amateurs. What I am saying is that they were experimenting with the movie camera as a tool to create art in the same way that painter uses a brush.
Yet, the movie tells a story on multiple levels. We can look at
on one level as a day in the life of a city. On another level, it becomes a work of art. On yet another level, it becomes even more interesting when we look at the film, as an expression of American power and ingenuity. This may or may not have been the intent of the creators, but it is there. From the opening shot of the great city skyline, the movie pulls in and we become one of the multitude disembarking from the ferry to work in the mighty skyscrapers.
The movement of the United States into a position of world power with the Spanish-American War was only a little over twenty years past. Only three years before, the United States won the War to End All Wars. Was the Woolworth building, then the tallest in the world, included in the film as a display of the supremacy of the United States? Alternatively, did Sheeler and Strand show it purely for aesthetic reasons? What about the scenes entitled "This world all spanned with iron rails," and "With lines of steamships threading every sea." Was this imperialism or art, or both? No matter what view you take, the fact that
is a classic and a milestone in the film industry is undeniable.
Rien que les heures (1926), whose international English title is
Nothing But Time
, by Alberto Cavalcanti (1897-1982) is a movie described by Lewis Jacobs as a "lyrical cross-section of Paris." While it is about the people of the city of Paris, it is not quite a City Symphony because it does not seem to capture the rhythm of the city and does not have the movements characteristic of a symphony. The world had to wait one more year for Walther Ruttmann's
Berlin, The Symphony of a Great City
for the genre to become fully developed. (See below)
Cavalcanti's avant-garde film documentary,
however, is still quite important, aside from that fact that it set the stage for the coming of
. Cavalcanti makes a social statement by showing us the contrasts between the wealthy and the poor of Paris. The movie also has characters that reappear throughout the movie, which tends to involve the viewer with their personal story.
And here we come to the crucial difference between
Rien que les heures
in terms of their respective filmmakers' attitudes toward the people of the city. Generally speaking, Cavalcanti is more immediately concerned with people as individuals, while Ruttmann is more concerned with people as a mass.
Berlin, The Symphony of a Great City
Ruttmann (1887-1941) provides the viewer with one day in the life of a city in the Weimar Republic that borders on the voyeuristic but in a more general way than
. It confines any personal story to an isolated incident that when combined with other isolated incidents make up the whole story of the city.
An architect, painter, and graphic designer, Ruttmann was born in 1887 in Frankfurt and died in 1941 in Berlin. In 1921 he experimented with abstract film forms when he produced
. This was followed by
a silent, black and white film, is a sixty-five minute documentary that has some abstract elements, but is primarily a montage of scenes of everyday happenings in the city from predawn to late at night.
In 1927 German filmmaker Walter Ruttmann adapted the montage theories of Dziga Vertov to this highly formal study of a day in the life of Berlin. Vertov, the Soviet cinema's most dedicated ideologue, probably would have objected to the abstraction (read: bourgeois idealism) of Ruttmann's film, but it remains a unique and sometimes inspired exercise in style for its own sake.
Using cameras purportedly hidden in suitcases, Ruttmann shows us the Berlin of 1927 with a propinquity that would not have been possible with cameras set up in the open. Whether all of the shots were candid is debatable, as certain scenes, such as the suicide of a woman, seem to be set up. Be that as it may, this film is not about individuals or individual scenes. The montage that Ruttmann gives us comes together in such a way that the city itself becomes a viable being, and we are viewing the rhythmic beating of its heart. The movie also breaks ground in that it reflects the emergence of new roles for women.
Berlin: The Symphony of the City
, a 1927 city film from the time of the Weimar Kino-Debatte, shows an era passionately engaged in and defined by the cinema and its new discourse. While Ruttmann's metropolitan symphony is not a production of "feminist" modernism, it does present multiple images of "new" women on the screens and streets of modernity, elucidating and illuminating, as a first step, the many facets of women's presence in modern spaces.
The question is if simply presenting an observation of Berlin is documentary filmmaking, especially during that brief period between two devastating wars. Nowhere in the movie do we get a sense of the horror of the recent past or a prediction of the horrors that are to come.
Ruttmann was influenced by the Soviets, especially Vertov and the "kino-eye" group. His film lacks their spirit of daring experimentation (and pales beside Vertov's masterpiece
The Man With A Movie Camera
, made a year later, but the achievement is remarkable nonetheless.
Berlin as a Symphony
My current students and I watched
Berlin- Symphony of a Great City
. Before we did so, we discussed that symphonies are large-scale musical compositions divided into sections or movements. They usually have four movements, although some have only one while others may even have five or six. In a symphony with four movements, the first is usually fast while the second is slow. The third movement is dance-like and the fourth comes to a lively conclusion.
The students watched for the elements of the four movements, but found that the film actually had five movements each clearly marked by number and a title written in German. They definitely were able to detect the changes of pace and were able to see how Ruttmann matched the film to the rhythm of the music by selection of fast or slow moving footage and by editing.
Berlin- Symphony of a Great City
is indeed constructed as a symphony with several beautiful movements. As beautiful as it is, or maybe because it is beautiful, Ruttmann's film is not without criticism of its subject matter.
Documentary makers from John Grierson to Jean Rouch and beyond have warned of the dangers of the beautiful image within documentary film.
John Grierson recognizes the beauty of the images but used
Berlin A Symphony of a Great City
as an example of what a documentary should not be. "For all its ado of workmen and factories and swirl and swing of a great city, Berlin created nothing." In the opinion of Professor Dudley Andrew of Yale University, Grierson made this statement because his goal was not art but social change. According to Professor Andrew, Grierson is known for being an "instrumentalist" who believed that film should serve social purposes, while Ruttmann kept artistic principles in mind even as he took pictures of his city.
The Music in Berlin A Symphony of a Great City
The video version of Berlin that my students and I watched has music and we discussed that when the movie came out it was a silent film and that a live orchestra would have accompanied it in the theater. Several sources have indicated that Edmund Meisel's original score for the film, which has been lost, was an upbeat jazz composition. What would be more appropriate for a film of the Jazz Age? Later versions had new scores added. "The Kino video includes a score that is classical in form, and somewhat melancholy in tone, but it matches the film's rhythms very well."
After the City Symphony reached maturity with Ruttmann's
, other directors made similar films. In the 1929, Dziga Vertov (1896-1954) made a documentary of not a day in the life of a particular city but of Soviet urban life in general, using material shot in more than one city. What is unique about this film is that the audience is a part of the film. The viewer sees the empty theater that later will present the movie, as well as the cameramen who are filming it. It is especially interesting that we even get to see the editing process because the editing and special effects, such as a sequence showing moving vehicles as an overlapping butterflied image, moves the surrealism in this motion picture up a notch from the few abstract scenes in
Holland's Joris Ivens (1898-1989) was another of the avant-garde moviemakers, although his movies are not technically City Symphonies.
(1927) was a film study of a drawbridge in Rotterdam.
(1929) was a look at a rain shower in which he edited together footage of showers that fell over a period of several months to look like a single rainstorm. Both of these movies have been referred to as cinepoems.
Also in 1929, Jean Vigo (1905-1934) made
A Propos de Nice
. This movie, while showing a day in the life of the city of Nice, makes a critical statement about the wealthy. Again, the movie shows the awakening of the city and the preparation for the day. However, the preparations are not to accommodate the inhabitants, but for the pleasure of the town's wealthy vacationers. This movie also uses creative editing and experimentation to bring it from documentary into the realm of art.