Sunday, 22 September 2019

FILM REVIEW: Berlin: Die Sinfonie Der Großstadt - HOME, Manchester.

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman, W. 1927)
With live accompaniment by HarmonieBand

Walter Ruttman’s 1927 film is an interesting time capsule of a documentary which, restored to a lean 73 minutes, is an extended silent montage depicting a day in the life of a city and its inhabitants. At this special one-off screening the film was accompanied by HarmonieBand, a trio comprising Connie Pharoah on viola, Dai Pritchard on saxophone and Paul Robinson on keyboard, accordion and dulcimer. 

As is oft cited by film historians, silent cinema was never silent and when first screened in 1927, Ruttman’s film would have had a live accompaniment, so there is an authenticity to watching silent films with musicians playing that adds a vibrancy to whatever film is being screened. This was no exception, with composer/musician Paul Robinson’s new score breathing new life into the film, and long may HOME pursue this viewing experience for fans of silent era movies.

Ruttman’s documentary is an interesting film, which tells the tale of a day in the life of post WW1 Berlin. The audience are transported by train in dizzyingly fast edits, with scenery flashing past the screen from left to right, through the suburbs and into to the heart of the city. To reveal that Berlin is empty, dormant or indeed, slumbering. In five distinct acts the city awakes, works, interacts, plays and returns to sleep as the cameras explore the human experience within.

The documentary is heavily inspired by the pioneering work of Eisenstein and Vertov, both leading lights in Soviet montage cinema, and none more clearly than in the juxtaposition between shots of workers’ feet bustling into a factory and shots of cows’ legs (taken from the same angle) as they are herded in for milking. The film is an optimistic and sentimental view of the city, presenting it as a dynamic, modern place to live. It borders on propaganda or tourist-board commissioned work, but is always elevated from such forms by the clever juxtapositions or angular shot compositions of the filmmaker. Aside from the commentary on industrialisation and the herding of workers, there is also an interesting section which focusses on the contrasting plights of people at opposing ends of Berlin’s economic scale. As customers in a restaurant greedily savour their meals, we are treated to cutaways of lions tearing at a carcass and images of the poor and destitute cradling their children. However, these images do not linger beyond observation and counterpoint, so never become polemic, which is a surprise given the films’ context.

Seeing Berlin in the 21st century creates new meanings that were way beyond Ruttman’s intentions, barring an ability to see the future. In Ruttman’s Germany, gone is the post-war trauma and nihilism that influenced the expressionism films from earlier in the decade (see Nosferatu and Das Cabinet Des Dr Calligari) and here is the economic prosperity and optimism of the Weimar Republic. Ruttman depicts a 20th century Germany that has not been isolated from the roaring twenties, Jazz, music halls and industrialisation, with only a few cracks emerging in the treatment of the lower classes. But hindsight offers a jaundiced perspective that means when viewing a sequence depicting young children going to school, it is hard not to wonder what became of them under the rise of the Nazi party, or when seeing young black men on a music hall stage, quietly hoping that they got out before Hitler’s ideologies of hate became policy.

However the audience received the film in HOME, one thing was for certain; HarmonieBand’s accompaniment, using Paul Robinson’s score was perfectly pitched to reinforce the imagery on screen, with pulsating, looping refrains to accompany the factory machines or motion of steam trains, to delicate melodies which brought humanity to the depiction of city’s population. Upon congratulating Mr Robinson on his wonderful performance he revealed that the film had been screened at a different pace to that which he was used to (I can’t remember which was which, but between the band and the film, one was working to 25 frames per second and the other to 24 frames per second) so the musicians had gone through quite the ordeal to keep pace. They looked a little rattled as the lights came up, but I can honestly say that the audience didn’t notice the difference because HarmonieBand’s performance was fantastic and again, I congratulate them.

I truly hope that HOME play host to HarmonieBand when they embark on their next score for a silent classic, and I will be keeping an eye out for them. In the meantime, check HOME’s listings for its excellent ongoing programme of revivals, touring prints and classic matinees.

Reviewer - Ben Hassouna-Smith
on - 22/9/19

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