Berlin Symphony: Fantasia or Fantasy

Walther Ruttman’s Berlin, Symphony
Image from: GHDI.

A cinematic fantasia? A salute to modernity? A hyper-kinetic montage of Berlin life, circa 1927? What is revealed and what is hidden in a seemingly naturalistic rendering of a modern city?

A train appears out of nowhere and I am immediately filled with a sense of dread. It is an eerie feeling—an emotion at the opposite end of the spectrum that I imagine the filmmaker hoped to stimulate in his audience. I could not separate the images on the screen from a flurry of others that simultaneously rushed my mind’s eye. Images recalled from countless feature films, documentaries and photographs. This made it impossible for me to share in Ruttman’s delight in acceleration—toward what are we accelerating? Nor could I sit back and equate the speed and power of a locomotive simply with new perceptions and sensations of modern life. I could not read the train’s (and with it the audience’s) passage from rural to suburban to urban center as a metaphor for the civilizing power of industrialization. No. German trains of that particular era, hurling through space, can only have Auschwitz as their ultimate destination.

Along these lines, I could not be persuaded to share Ruttmann’s enthusiasm for the all-seeing camera. How could I, knowing that within a few years, the populace of this same City would rise and fall under the total surveillance of fascist rule? Even the elegant sequences of automation and assembly lines assumed a menacing aspect—intimating the monotonous machinery of death to come. One image in particular stood out: A barbed wire–topped, rolling factory gate that sealed, then opened and closed, on a prison-like complex—on a prototype Auschwitz. The truth is, Berlin Symphony was painful to watch.

Am I being unfair to Ruttman? Or has history made his Berlin un-watchable? The film’s “portrait” of Weimar Berlin—optimistic, generous to the point of utopian—celebrates a City in transition. Horses, carts and carriages share streets with automobiles, trolleys and omnibuses. Neon and electric lights illuminate the new metropolis. Store windows are crowded with items for sale—the new consumer lifestyle expressed in life-like mannequins, complete with flirtatious eyebrows and cigarettes dangling from painted mouths.

But as technically assured as the film is—as steady as Ruttman’s hand—and as modern as its themes and narrative, it was also surprisingly sentimental—a “day in the life” of Berlin. Which is to say, not altogether honest. This sentimentality denies the terrible recent past and the anxiety regarding the immediate future. Yes, the film is often beautiful. Yes, it defines the City as a dynamic place, swarming with abundant and diverse life. But what exactly do its montages document? Lacking the ubiquitous sausage, how would we know we’re in Berlin and not Paris or even Prague?

What Ruttman captures with his camera is in fact a suspension. And what is suspended is the chaos and violence that defined most of Weimar’s short history. The irony here is that Ruttman’s jazz-age tempo accompanies a moment of calm—after the earthquake of the First World War, the after shocks of early Weimar and just before the fires of the Holocaust. What is inescapable to one who watches this film in 2016 is the knowledge that what he or she is watching is on its way not simply becoming undone, but eventually broken into bits.

As I watched people at work, people at play, the factories running at capacity, lions, hippos, and monkeys on display, the free market flexing its muscles, I could not keep other images from intruding on Ruttman’s film. I recalled Otto Dix’s, George Grosz’s and Max Beckman’s crippled veterans, bloated prostitutes and predatory capitalists—works soon to be defined as “Degenerate.” I think of Sally Bowles, Kristallnacht and that odd honking siren that announced the Gestapo were on their way. As I saw these things, I thought of everything and everyone off screen waiting for their cues.

What else did Ruttman conceal from his audience? The very different Berlin that would appear only a few years after this film was produced—the Depression, the Nazi rise to power, the Second World War. Suddenly all those fat policemen in their silly hats were directing more than traffic. Other images of Berlin layered themselves over the largely benign ones put in motion by Ruttman. One in particular stayed with me for some time: A depopulated, shell-shocked Berlin that would not exist, or be captured cinematically, for another 18 years in Rossellini‘s “Germany Year Zero.”

Berlin Symphony: Fantasia or Fantasy