City Symphony Primer: 3 Essential Films to Watch Now

Manhatta

Is poetry fiction or nonfiction? The best answer is probably “neither.” Yet we spend a lot of time pretending that such a clear distinction exists for cinema, despite the fact that it is in essence the poetry of motion. Sure, a script can be fictional or nonfictional, but can an image? The high flying weightlessness of Gravity and the woozy, tempests of Leviathan aren’t all that far apart. The forms don’t speak separate languages.

All of this is in the interest of getting at the poetry of motion. The 1920s were a bit of a proving ground for documentary film, though nonfiction cinema has been around since the very beginning. Critic John Grierson is actually said to have coined the term “documentary” in a review of Robert Flaherty’s 1926 docufiction Moana. Flaherty’s films are important, of course, most notably Nanook of the North. Yet his pioneering ethnographies were hardly the only significant development of that decade. Another small group of films, too few to really be called a genre and too spread out to be a “movement,” made their mark on poetics. These were the city symphonies.

The city wasn’t a new concept back in 1920, but the sudden rise of the industrial metropolis was a huge deal. The flood of migrants into the urban centers of the world was unprecedented, as were the new economies they drove forward. Early cinema grew up in this context, in Paris and other cosmopolitan behemoths. It was only a matter of time before this scientific, industrial art form collided with the throbbing pulse of the urban revolution. In 1921 this affinity was turned into the first of the city symphonies, Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta.

The 10-minute film matches footage of New York City with excerpts from Walt Whitman. It is, quite literally, an example of poetic cinema. These city symphonies are a counter current of sorts to Flaherty’s informative ethnographies, more interested in the ineffable character of their environments than the practicalities of living there. Yet this does not make them an early form of cinéma vérité. There’s nothing restrained about the way these films are made, no attempt at finding anything resembling objective truth. Rather, they are interested in manufacturing poetic truth. Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), for example, cuts abruptly between different parts of the city and different times of day, more interested in the juxtapositions of a heavy-handed editor than the purity of a long take.

Rain

The filmmakers of city symphonies were making the argument for cinema as the only really effective way of representing the life of the metropolis. Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1926 portrait of Paris, Nothing But the Hours (Rien que des heures), actually begins with a verbal assertion that cinema is inherently better at capturing the French capital’s character than any other art form. Like other avant-garde films of the period (René Clair’s Entr’acte), these films were focused on the beauty of motion itself, and mechanical motion in particular. Joris Ivens’s The Bridge (1927) is particularly emblematic of this, focusing solely on an enormous iron bridge in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. Like the Futurist poets, these filmmakers were obsessed with the visual power of technology.

Finally, with Soviet montage theory in mind, the city symphonies use juxtaposition and simultaneity to their advantage. Simple works like Jan Leyda’s A Bronx Morning (1931) capture a whole community by cutting together simple repeated images, like shutters opening at daybreak. Ivens took a different approach with his Amsterdam film Rain (1929), which compresses the Dutch capital by following the weather from street to street. In Berlin things become more pointed, juxtaposing night and day, rich and poor, and man and beast. Finally, the Soviet tradition and the city symphony collide in Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Dziga Vertov’s frenetic masterpiece.

Now, Watch Some Docs!

I am not going to tell you to go watch Man with a Movie Camera. It’s brilliant, but no matter. According to last year’s Sight and Sound poll, it’s the 8th greatest movie ever made. Someone has already told you to watch it, probably many people. I won’t waste any more of your time. I will, however, tell you about my three favorite city symphonies.

Manhatta

Ok, so maybe there’s something a little heavy handed about the “poetry” of a film that makes you read actual poetry every minute or so. It doesn’t matter, Manhatta is still beautiful. In the way that composers set poems to music, Sheeler and Strand have set Whitman’s words to film. It begins in the harbor, slowly approaching the skyscrapers in this “proud, passionate city.” Then it follows a truly striking shot of the Staten Island Ferry arriving in Manhattan, without any of today’s safety precautions. Commuters storm forward into the financial district, and we’re off. Cars, subway trains, and ships all feature prominently, behemoths of modernity. Every shot is interesting, from the graveyard at Trinity Church to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Rain

Rain could easily have been a quiet, peaceful film. Ivens could have shot droplets falling at an easy pace into Amsterdam’s canals, placid. There are scattered moments like that, too. But on the whole this is a work about the clash between nature and the artifice of the city. As the storm’s winds rip through trees and awnings, water bombards everything from window panes to gutters. Sometimes Ivens just shoots puddles, rippling with the arrival of countless new drops. The people, meanwhile, remain mostly faceless. In no way does this mean that Rain is somehow anti-humanist. Rather, the film is simply more interested in totality of the city rather than its inhabitants. Amsterdam is a collection of people, buildings, animals and nature itself. Even if the climate might be more forgiving, that’s true of all cities.

Also, this particular video includes the score written for the film in 1941 by composer Hanns Eisler. It’s excellent.

Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis

Ruttman’s ambitious portrait of Berlin is perhaps the greatest achievement of this little movement. Its scope is practically absurd, touching on all hours of the day and all walks of life in a city of over four million people. It begins with a train, charging through the countryside en route to the city’s central train station. Then it arrives, spectacularly. Ruttman revels in the hustle and bustle of this transportation hub, featuring signs for all manner of destinations and crowds of rushing commuters. This obsession with vehicles keeps up through all of the film’s five chapters. The rush of automobiles down the city’s boulevards is thrilling, especially at night, and at one point Ruttman even takes on an actual roller coaster ride.

But Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis isn’t focused entirely on the inanimate objects and impersonal hoards that give Berlin its violent physicality. This is equally a film about living things. A juxtaposition of marching soldiers and radicals around a soap-box resolves not necessarily with a clear stance but with a grander sense of thriving, dangerous political life. A trip to the zoo not only momentarily entertains us, but gives Ruttman a whole bank of animal images to return to throughout the film. These lions and monkeys are almost used as punctuation, question marks and exclamation points that add to a montage of starving children and platters of food at a sumptuous banquet. The final, nocturnal act spins among the bright lights of cinemas and cabarets, before tossing us back out into the world.

Ruttman’s accomplishment is two-fold. The film can be treated as a historical document, a uniquely informative record of what Berlin felt like in the 1920s. Yet, as Cavalcanti explains in the beginning of Nothing But the Hours, if it weren’t for monuments every city would be the same. Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis is a portrait of modern urbanity. Its mood, its pace and its language of simultaneity and poetry in movement are more relevant now than ever. Today more than 50% of the world’s population live in cities, and by 2050 it’s estimated to reach 80%. In the decades since Ruttman, Ivens, Sheeler and Strand made these films, their accomplishments have only become more exciting.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.