Saturday, March 08, 2008


I first saw Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) at the ICA in the early nineties. They didn't have a soundtrack so we sat and watched it in silence, just listening to each other coughing or shifting position occasionally. I thought it was great, and still prefer it to Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Dziga Vertov's famous experimental film, another 'city symphony', mostly set in Odessa. Both of these were predated by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler's six minute New York film Manhatta, made in 1920. Like Ruttmann's film of Berlin, Manhatta spans a day in the life of a city, from footage of Staten Island ferry commuters to the final scene of sun setting over the Hudson River. You can see the film at the Met website [Postscript: I am now able to embed it from Youtube.]

Other examples of city symphonies? Regen (Rain) a poetic ten minute film from 1929 directed by Joris Ivens, for which Hans Eisler later composed a soundtrack in 1941, 'Fourteen Ways to Describe Rain'. Ivens' earlier film The Bridge (1927) is similar, showing on a drawbridge in Rotterdam. Both can be seen at Ubuweb. In France there was Rien que les heures (1926), Alberto Cavalcanti's film about Paris, and Jean Vigo's A Propos de Nice (1929). Keith Beattie writes that the 'subtitle of Ruttmann's film was applied to numerous films within which practices of visual kinaesthesia constructed a 'symphony' based on the diurnal cycle of life in the modern metropolis, while simultaneously infusing avant-gardist perspectives with a historically and politically cognizant form of social criticism.' At a simple level, as Scott MacDonald has noted, the city symphonies were the flipside of contemporary documentaries like Nanook of the North which brought the exotic to cinema audiences: these films instead exoticised the familiar life of the city.

These films are obviously rich in poetic cityscapes and Charles Sheeler actually used the footage he and Strand created as inspiration for paintings. Robert Hughes in American Visions writes that 'one shot in Manhatta looked down at a train on the Church Street elevated railway sliding into view; Church Street El, 1920, takes this image, colors it and cleans it up, abstracts it, but leaves it essentially recognizable.'

Charles Sheeler, Church Street El, 1920

1 comment:

Nathan said...

you can download "man with a movie camera" for your ipod/computer here:

keep up the good work as usual.