A Classic Look at Berlin

Berlin: The Symphony of a Great City

As an experimental film director, Walther Ruttmann (1887-1941) had created each one of his films as a visual symphony that was perfectly timed with a rise and fall of orchestral proportions that would make classical composer Richard Wagner smile with enthrallment. The early appearances of his “visual” music can be seen in the short films Opus 1, 2, 3 and 4 before he created his first feature length film Berlin: The Symphony of a (Great) City in 1927. The silent film is a visual masterpiece that sways back and forth with perfectly timed pacing that is wonderfully enhanced by detailed liner notes that he had written for the musical composition that was written to be performed alongside the film’s exhibition.

With the aid of three camera operators, he was able to obtain enough footage of the city of Berlin from so many different angles that the final cut of the film breathes in a new life of its own without missing a beat of action. Berlin would be a completely different film if Ruttmann had only dispatched one camera man to film as much footage as he could possibly handle. A single camera man would either return only one-third of the footage that the three camera men had filmed or spend more time attempting to shoot as much footage of a single subject matter from all the different angles as possible. The risk of a solo photographer who is unable of capturing enough footage of an event reaches a peak during an unplanned moment that does not allow any opportunity for a do over. Large crowds who are unaware of being filmed by a camera man will not necessarily be willing to repeat their actions over and over again so that a camera man can film them from every worthwhile angle possible.

The argument of valuing the number of photographers who are shooting a single subject matter could swing in any given direction and go on for ages. Regardless of the discussion it is still intriguing to watch the film as it is romantically portrays everything about the city of Berlin from all the different angles. The high amount of footage that was photographed for the editing process is no longer of a concern, since the editing had brought the film to life with perfect amount of a rhythmic pattern. At the very start of the seventy minute feature exists one of the most visually rhythmic opening sequences ever shown in a film. As seen in the video clip below, the opening of the film begins with a point of view that seems to be hanging over a body of water for a lengthy period of time. The water shot dissolves to an animated sequence of the sun rising over the horizon several times before the horizon evolves into one of the more recognizable symbols of train safety. Once the viewer is able to recognize the railway safety arms that are being lowered for an oncoming train the camera suddenly jumps aboard a wild train ride as it rushed toward the city limits of Berlin.

As witnessed by the camera, and the viewer, the train is moving at a fast pace across the countryside as it moves toward the city of Berlin, Germany. Almost every single shot that appears in the opening sequence contains fast-paced action that moves from screen left to screen right, if not toward the direction of the camera lens. Although it was not the first reported case of continuity with screen direction, it has influenced the use of rhythm. The opening sequence had registered a weak memory in the back of my mind. It took me awhile to remember the similarities it shares with the music video for song “Star Guitar” by The Chemical Brothers (the video directed by Michel Gondry). Although the music video appears to be a single, uncut camera shot there was a unique use of visual layering to combine several pieces of footage so that a clearly defined visual rhythm could accentuate the musical soundtrack.

The train sequence obtains the attention of the viewer by using the camera as a tool that creates a unique point of view not usually experienced first hand on a routine train trip across the countryside. The footage also serves as a way to visually drawn the audience toward the primary subject matter of Berlin by allowing the viewer to pretend he or she is traveling toward the city for a vacation. Although Ruttmann’s editing has brought together a visual rhythm for the footage, the sequence would not have been easy to edit without the continuing pattern between the shots. Once the camera arrives within the city’s boundaries, the viewer immerses as a casual observer of the events that unfold over the course of a typical day for the city. The vast remainder of the film the camera is used as a doppelganger for the viewer’s physical point of view.

Affiliate Referral Links Disclosure: This article may contain affiliate referral links embedded within its content. This means The Buzz Track may be monetarily compensated when a visitor clicks on a third-party referral link and makes a qualifying purchase on the affiliated website.