In part 2 of our exploration of Weimar Berlin cinema we look at the depiction of the city’s streets on screen and the alienating reality many found in the growing metropolis.
The growth of Berlin’s cinema industry in the first few decades of the twentieth century coincided with a rapid expansion of the city. When the early film pioneers the Skladanowsky brothers began their experiments in the city in 1870s, the population of Berlin had been around 1 million, a relatively small number for a global capital city. Yet, by 1920 this number had quadrupled and the city was now home to 4 million inhabitants.
This population boom meant that Berlin operated as a leading hub within Germany, attracting migrants from all over the country, as the city underwent a cultural, as well as social revolution. The presence of world famous creatives, such as the architect Walter Gropius and artist George Grosz, as well as the city’s infamous cabarets, which were renowned for their hedonism and sexual freedom, saw Berlin develop a reputation as a modernist city whose society was at the cutting edge of fashion and culture.
As discussed in part 1 This status was reflected in the city’s cinematic output as Berlin became home to a diverse array of filmmakers, working in numerous different styles. The most well-known group of filmmakers in the city at the time was the so-called German Expressionists such as F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, who were developing an international reputation for pushing the boundaries of the medium.
However, whilst these filmmakers may have used the facilities, technicians and actors based around the Babelsberg studio complex on the south west edge of the city to construct their expressionist worlds, and so helped to further develop Berlin’s reputation as a successful and creative film industry location, the majority of their films’ narratives avoided depicting the reality of Weimar Berlin. There were notable exceptions, such as Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, F.W. Murnau 1924), which uses an expressionist style to tell the story of an elderly doorman at a luxury Berlin hotel, but such an expressionist Berlin film remained an anomaly.
Instead, it was left to the so-called Straßenfilme, such as Die Straße (The Street, Karl Grune, 1923), Asphalt (Joe May, 1929) and Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, 1930), to explore Berlin on screen. The transformation of Berlin in the early part of the twentieth century had created a city unlike anything that had been experienced before. Societal changes and technological advances altered people’s work life, their domestic arrangements, and how they spent their free time, all of which offered a host of new narrative possibilities for filmmakers.
Whilst these films spanned a range of genres and film styles, they all focussed on the new way of living in the city, on its pleasure, dangers, crime, morals and the dizzying speed of change. Thus, the image of Berlin projected by the Straßenfilme created a version of the city that showed a gritty underside to Berlin’s development into a hedonistic, modernist location.
The Influence of Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin
In order to explore such a view of Berlin, Weimar filmmakers drew on similar ideas to leading cultural theorists of the time, such as Walter Benjamin and Georg Simmel, who had been at the forefront of attempts to understand the sociological impact of the modern city on the lives of Berlin’s inhabitants; Simmel through essays such as The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903) and Benjamin in his flâneur infused writing. Thus, their arguments provided a useful framework for filmic explorations of Berlin.
Both felt that the changes seen in Berlin as the city grew into a world metropolis had happened too quickly, which meant that the city’s inhabitants had not been given time to process the developments that were happening around them. David Frisby defines this attitude as being motivated by the fact that; “[…] the speed of destruction and reconstruction [in Weimar Berlin] robbed the observers of the ruins the time for reflection. The face or faces of the city could be transformed so rapidly, that the presentness of the past was seldom allowed to enter into consciousness at all” (2001: 119).
In an attempt to process these changes, Benjamin took to the streets, traversing the city to try and understand the new reality which was being created. In comparison, for Simmel, it was the effect which the city’s transformation had on the mental life of Berlin society which was most telling.
As Graeme Gilloch states; “[…] for Benjamin, the city is the site of the rise of Erlebnis and the concomitant demise of Erfahrung. The experience of the modern urban complex is that of the fragmentation of experience itself […] [Whereas] Simmel explores the impact of the city upon the ‘inner life’ of the individual” (1996: 144). Simmel argued that the modern metropolis now offered so much in terms of activities and distractions that the individual became over-stimulated and disorientated by their surroundings, which saw, as Frisby writes elsewhere; “The intellect [creating] a necessary distance, abstraction and inner barrier from the jostling crowdedness and the motley disorder […] Socially this distance takes the form of indifference, dissociation and the blasé attitude” (1990: 65).
As the growth of Berlin was linked to increased industrialisation, Simmel believed this blasé attitude to be symptomatic of the rising commodification associated with the money economy of the city. However, the problem with this new phenomenon of ‘the crowd’ was that it also led to an increase in anonymity and loneliness, as traditional familial networks were broken down, a change in society which had a negative effect on the mental life of Berliners and saw an increase in problems such as paranoia.
Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt
Whilst many of the Straßenfilme explored the idea of the modern flâneur and the blasé attitude of the crowd, the film which best represents such a view of Weimar Berlin is Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of the Big City, Walter Ruttmann, 1927). Ruttmann’s film tells the story of a day in the life of Berlin and is one of a series of international city symphony films that were produced in the 1920s and included Rein que les heures (Nothing but Time, Alberto Cavalcanti, 1926), which explored Paris, and Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), which depicted Moscow.
In Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt Ruttmann makes use of a documentary style and plays with filmic techniques to create a film text which mirrors many of the ideas found within Simmel’s work surrounding Berlin as a superficial city dominated by a faceless crowd. The film cuts from one scene to another, examining the spectacle of the city’s busy streets and hedonistic entertainment locales. Ruttmann does not allow the camera to linger for too long on any scene or individual in particular and this means that the film reflects what Ruttmann sees as the shallow indifference of Berlin’s inhabitants.
Consequently, the city itself becomes the star of the film, with the version of Berlin depicted being one very much in the throes of a modernist renovation. The Berlin that Ruttmann portrays is not one full of traditional architecture, with such buildings rarely shown in the film at all. Instead Ruttmann focuses on the tempo and rhythm of Berlin life, as the film repeatedly makes use of images of Berlin’s public transport network and its factories. Just like in the writing of Simmel and Benjamin, the city found in Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt is one which is a bustling, busy world metropolis that has fully embraced the industrialisation and hedonism of the modern age.
However, the fast-moving and shallow gaze which Ruttmann uses to explore the city also allows the film to investigate the darker side of city life. Ruttmann combines the tempo of the city with montage editing to create a filmic text which builds layers of understanding and develops the film’s critical exploration of Weimar Berlin. This is seen in the sequence that depicts an unknown young woman throwing herself to her death from one of Berlin’s bridges.
The scene opens with images of women begging on the street, before a young woman is seen in close up. Yet, as she prepares to jump from the bridge the camera cuts to a roller-coaster, then a spinning spiral, whilst once the women has disappeared under the water of the Spree, the camera does not loiter at the scene. Instead, rather tellingly the film cuts to a clip of models on a catwalk and then to one of a caged lion.
Through both its own ambivalent treatment of the event and the use of editing, the film links this woman and her subsequent demise to the wider problems of commodification and the breakdown in communication brought about by the rapidity of life in Berlin at the time. The woman would seem to be the very epitome of the problems of alienation found in the work of Simmel, as she has become overwhelmed by the situation she found herself in in Berlin.
The Coming of Sound
Ruttmann’s film is typical of the construction of Berlin found in Weimar cinema and this image of a quickly altering city of hedonism, with a problematic and dangerous underbelly, continued into the sound films made about Berlin in the early 1930s, such as M (Fritz Lang, 1931) and Berlin Alexanderplatz (Piel Jutzi, 1931). For example, the exploration of the issues facing Franz Biberkopf (Emil Jannings) once he is released from prison and returns to the city in Berlin Alexanderplatz continues the view of the struggling Berliner seen in reference to the young women discussed above.
Much like in Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt, the opening of Berlin Alexanderplatz uses editing and multiple images to stress the alienating and confused situation Biberkopf finds himself in due to the city’s rapid development. Thus, in an attempt to combat these feelings, Biberkopf functions in the film as a working class flâneur, as he roams the city in search of a purpose and a place to belong; be it on Berlin’s streets, in the city’s bars, or at the city’s cabarets. As a result, Biberkopf becomes an early example of the character of the drifter, a figure who has come to haunt Berlin cinema.
Therefore, Berlin’s early cinematic reputation was that of a city which was both at the very forefront of advancements in the modern world and was a decadent mecca of the hedonistic post-First World War period. However, at the same time, behind this debauched façade lurked a more damming reality, which illustrated the social problems caused by the city’s growth. Berlin’s inhabitants had been left dazed and confused by the rapid tempo of the city’s development and this situation was giving rise to a transient lifestyle in the city.
This post is adapted from my PhD thesis which is available in full at etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/10758/
David Frisby, Georg Simmel and the Study of Modernity: Georg Simmel and Contemporary Sociology: eds. Michael Kaem, Bernard S. Phillips and Robert S. Cohen (1990)
David Frisby, Cityscapes of Modernity (2001)
Graeme Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City
Peter Jelavich, Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film and the Death of Weimar Culture
Anton Kaes Sites of Desire: The Weimar Street Film: Film Architecture: Set Designs From Metropolis to Blade Runner: Ed. Dietrich Neumann (1999)
Barbara Mennel, Cities and Cinema (2008)
Dorothy Rowe, Representing Berlin: Sexuality and the City in Imperial and Weimar Germany
Rob Shields, Fancy Footwork: Walter Benjamin’s Notes on Flânerie: The Flâneur: Ed. Keith Tester (1994)