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The life of a great city (Paris) from dawn until dusk, including the beautiful and the ragged, the rich and the poor, with little or no comment (intertitles) from the director, Cavalcanti (whose first film this was).
A train speeds through the country on its way to Berlin, then gradually slows down as it pulls into the station. It is very early in the morning, about 5:00 AM, and the great city is mostly quiet. But before long there are some signs of activity, and a few early risers are to be seen on the streets. Soon the new day is well underway - it's just a typical day in Berlin, but a day full of life and energy. Written by
`Berlin, Symphony of a Great City' is a film I've watched over and over with fascination. I think it's true that it is not so much about the people of Berlin, although we see many of them, but the city itself as a huge living, breathing organism. Back in the 1930s filmmaker John Grierson apparently wrote that this film `created nothing,' and that it violated the first principles of documentary by showing us nothing of importance but beautiful images. Looking at it more than 70 years after its creation, however, its documentary value seems evident to me, at least. I find it fascinating just to see what the people, clothing, uniforms, vehicles, streets, parks, restaurants, shops, theaters, nightclubs, and factories looked like in that distant time and place. It's amazing to contemplate how soon this complex, sophisticated society would be consumed in the most primitive debauchery. Do these people really look that much different from those we see on our streets every day? It makes me wonder what we're all potentially capable of.
Some slight differences do seem apparent, however. When a fight breaks out in a public place today, people usually try to ignore it, or even duck their heads and run for cover. But in a scene where two men argue violently in the street, the Berliners of the 1920s crowd in close around the combatants, and even try to separate them and arbitrate the dispute, before a policeman moves in. Whether this was typically European at that time, or just typical of its era, I really can't say, but it seems strange to me today.
Although I think the majority of this film was shot in a candid manner, and looks it, it's obvious that not quite all of it was un-staged, as a previous commentator has pointed out. For example, look at the argument scene just mentioned. Considering one of the camera angles (probably from a 2nd floor window), the argument must have been staged at the exact spot where this camera could catch it, and the crowd's reaction, from above. In addition, a second camera was in place at street level to move in close, which hardly suggests a serendipitous event.
A good musical score is vitally important to bring this film to life. It's too bad the original score has been lost. It would be fascinating to know what it was like. But I think the one written by Timothy Brock for the Kino edition is superb in that it captures its changing moods and rhythms. If, as one internet reviewer commented, it seems a bit melancholy, that may be apropos considering that this beautiful city, and a great many of its inhabitants, would be consumed in fire less than 20 years later.
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