The Weimar Republic represented a period of tumultuous upheaval for Germany politically and economically, but culturally as well. Following World War I, the public was only beginning to come to terms with the emerging pathologies and conflicts of Modernity and industrialization, and avant-garde art offered a means of approaching these issues apart from, but not outside, both the prevailing political rhetoric of the past as well as the discourse provided by a new generation of political actors and agitators. Walter Ruttman's 1927 film Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt in German) is one such piece of avant-garde art, because it attempts to show, over the course of a day, the life of a contemporary city as it blends, sometimes forcefully, the new and old worlds of the early-twentieth century. Examining Ruttman's film in detail will offer important insights into Wiemar-era cultural production, and particularly how these cultural products vacillated between purely avant-garde aesthetic experimentation and the deployment of those experiments in the service of a particular political ideology. In particular, Ruttman's editing of certain shots and scenes at times suggest a possibly socialist or Marxist message lurking just beneath the surface of the film, but this message is never completed; as such, one must consider the possibility that Ruttman, or at least Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, views its subject matter with some degree of ambivalence, excited at the aesthetic and technological possibilities offered by Modernity but worried by the seemingly inevitable mechanization and dehumanization it carries with it.
Before discussing Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis in detail, it will be useful to first provide some historical context regarding the Weimar Republic in general, and the state of cinema in the Weimar Republic in particular. Even considering the Weimar Republic itself demonstrates some of the difficulties inherent in discussing and defining the ups and downs of political and artistic movements of the early-twentieth century, because as Detlev Peukert notes, one of "the problems that the Weimar Republic poses for historians [is that] even its temporal boundaries are open dispute."
One may view the start of the Weimar Republic occurring either in 1918, with the decline of the Imperial monarchy, or 1919, with the establishment of the Wiemar Constitution, and the particular choice informs one's interpretation of the subsequent years. This issue highlights the larger uncertainties facing Germany following World War I, and helps to underline how Wiemar Germany was characterized by disagreement and tumult, a tumult that reveals itself in the frames of Ruttman's film and its ambivalent political message.
As would be expected, the films of the Wiemar-era depicted the same political and psychological difficulties facing society, although not always directly. The effects of World War I on the German psyche have been well noted, along with the way these effects filtered into the cultural production of Germany. The most interesting aspect of Weimar-era cinema, however, is the way it attempts to balance opposing forces of depression, resentment, and despair with the sense of driving optimism that nevertheless presented itself through representations of Modernist technology and art. For example, Anton Kaes argues that "the classical cinema of Weimar Germany is haunted by the memory of a war whose traumatic outcome was never officially recognized, let alone accepted," so that "unspoken and concealed, implied and latent, repressed and disavowed, the experience of trauma became Weimar's historical unconscious."
Kaes looks to classic German films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and Metropolis, arguing that "these films translate military aggression and defeat into the domestic tableaux of crime and horror," and in doing so transfer the national, public concerns of Germany to the level of personal, urban problems.
It is worth pointing out that while Kaes' focuses on these dark, brooding films, and even considers them indicative of a traumatized German unconscious following World War I, his account of Weimar-era cinema differs from some of the most notable earlier considerations because he does not argue, like Siegfried Kracauer and Lotte Eisner, that "the films produced during the Weimar period should be read as manifestations of a kind of collective unconscious, displaying a uniquely German preoccupation with authority and a desire for submission that foreshadows the willingness of Germans to submit to real-life dictator Adolph Hitler."
Instead, he suggests that Wiemar cinema did not represent unconscious desire (for authority), but rather the return of repressed traumas. Thus, the monsters of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and Metropolis are not secret objects of longing, but rather personifications of the violence already inflicted upon the population. While Kaes' account of Weimar-era cinema is convincing when one only considers the films he focuses on, but ultimately it seems too restrictive an account of the variety of genres and styles exhibited by Weimar-era film.
Christian Rogowski recognizes that Weimar-era cinema exhibited more stylistic and narrative diversity than just Kaes' doom and gloom, but in discussing what he considers "the many faces of Weimar cinema," he glosses over "documentary montage films" like Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis.
Recognizing the relative critical no-man's land in which Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis has found itself is crucial, because it further reveals the fluctuating cultural space of the Weimar era, and difficulty in pinpointing the film's artistic and political allegiances. Early German abstract films gave rise to the notion of "opstiche Musik (optical or visual music)," films that were "liberated from the yoke of narrative" and instead focused on expressing abstract visual movements with a kind musical flow.
Walter Ruttman was responsible for a number of such films, and much of his work prior to Berlin: Symphony of a City constituted this kind of "absolute cinema."
Despite all this, however, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis is not frequently considered to be part of the opstiche Musik phenomenon, because its (relatively scant) narrative content seems to deny the opstiche Musik tendency toward abstraction.
In retrospect, one can easily argue that Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis belongs to a genre of 1920s film that might be called "city symphony films," because it shares similarities with films such as Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, but this classification is relatively limited in its utility because it does not offer much insight into what these films say about their respective cities. Put another way, because these films represent an emergent, novel genre, identifying that genre is of little help because there are few other examples to compare them to; discussing Nosferatu in the context of German Romanticism can be beneficial, because the latter is clearly engaged in conversation with preexisting genres, but discussing Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis in the context of city symphony films as such produces scant results, because it is one of the handful of film's that constituted the genre in the first place. As such, one must consider it on its own, and attempt to uncover its artistic and political statement without recourse to other films.
Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis is broken up into five acts, and takes place over the course of a day. In the context of this study, the most important scenes of the film come in the third and fourth acts, when Ruttman portrays political agitation in the streets and the wealth disparity of the city. The majority of act three takes place in a busy Berlin street, where the hustle and bustle of the street is contrasted with the crisp, tidy movements of the Reich President and his attendant guards. Where the surrounding shots feature cars and buses rushing past unorganized massed of people, the President walks down a set of sparsely populated steps, stepping between lines of policemen standing at attention. This shot is immediately followed by scenes of protestors marching in unison carrying a flag, and later by someone standing above a crowd, shouting (what one presumes are) political ideas.
These shots achieve a number of interrelated effects. Firstly, they present a clear visual disconnect between the political elite and the rest of the city. The President's shot is all order and decorum, but the rest of the act is filled with chaotic, seemingly overwhelming masses of people. This is crucial because it reveals how Ruttman makes an implicit political statement through his particular aesthetic choice. While Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis contains some more explicitly tonal montage sequences that juxtapose two conceptually related images which will be discussed below, this sequence features a more subtle use of montage that forces the viewer to note a distinction between the President and the public, even if this recognition only occurs on a subconscious, visually geometric level. Of course, Ruttman's particular political inclinations remains opaque in this sequence, but he does seem to at least be arguing that the political elite exist in a world apart from the public they are intended to represent and rule. This argument becomes clearer when one considers the following shots, which feature marching protestors and a shouting agitator in a crowd. These shots suggest that the true work of politics…