Saturday, November 3, 2007

Symphony of a Great City

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. (Link goes to GoogleVideo where you can watch the first 1 hour 12 minutes of this full-day, 5 reel silent movie (Walther Ruttmann, 1928).)

This film is profound for so many reasons. 1. The human desire to capture the whole, the entirety of an experience through the collection of as many viewpoints, factual tidbits and stories...the idea that there is one absolute truth or essence that these composite documents will build for us. Ultimately is an exhaustive endevour, but it is within us individually and collectively. Nowadays I think we doubt the possibility that such measures could point to a 'universal experience' but the idea in the 1920s can be seen in all facets of human action, from Joyce's Ulysses to Dorthea Lange's photographs of families in the US Depression. Additionally, in the twenties there were other "city films" made, attempting to capture the whole of a city-- physicality, people, feeling, rhythm-- including Sheeler and Strand's Manhatta (1921).
2. You can't help but thinking, at some point when watching either of these films, that everyone in them, everyone that you, that passed by the camera, is no longer alive. (Exception, of course being babies carried past the camera-- they are now 86.) An entire city, populated and bustling, people sharing in the time in their city and in the fabric of that city. And only the buildings remain, that the new people--us-- live in, the buildings that used to be home to those people.
3. In a more specific way, you think of the film, released in May 1928; and you know-- although they don't know-- that in 5 years Adolf Hitler will come to power and their city will enter a very dark period of war and death. It is strange that you the viewer know all this, and as you are pulled into the scene in a way only film can take you, you are with them and also watching from beyond, as history rolls massively along its course.