Saturday, February 10, 2007


Walter Ruttman was an architect and a graphic designer before becoming an experimental film pioneer. Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, is an impressionistic montage of images from the city as it quietly wakes up in the morning, has a busy day of work, then lets its hair down at night.


Berlin in the 20s was characterized by its innovative art scene: Bauhaus architecture, Expressionist film, dadaism and new objectivist painting. By 1927, Berlin had become the largest industrial city on the continent, and the intellectual center of Europe. But there was also a political divide; radical ideas on both sides of the spectrum (left wing communists vs. right wing fascists) found adherents here, and the economic depression that started in 1927 would deepen these conflicts.

Ruttman strikes a distinctly different tone in this movie than in the art of his contemporaries. There is a darkness and cynicism in George Grosz' paintings, and the social criticisms of Fritz Lang's films. But Ruttman's film is celebratory and affectionate.

Ruttman's loyalties don't appear to be in question yet. His glorification of the vibrant nightlife of Berlin's cabarets are not in line with the nationalists who tended to look down on Berlin's decadent lifestyle, and he had a cooperative relationship with his more jaded peers (he worked with Fritz Lang as a cinematographer on Metropolis).

This difference in attitudes, however, may explain their divergent paths. Five years later would find Fritz Lang suddenly fleeing the country leaving his wife and possessions behind, while Walter Ruttman would be making propaganda films for the Nazis.


Experimental film existed before this, but this is the earliest example of a feature length montage movie that I can find. It's certainly the most influential having inspired several imitations. Notable examples include Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera, and more recently Koyaanisqatsi.

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