On Sunday 6 February, fans of silent cinema were treated to the first event of the Barbican Centre’s ‘City Symphonies‘ series. Berlin, Symphony of a City (1927) and Manhatta (1921) both played to a packed out audience, who were no doubt drawn by the opportunity to see these gems on 35mm film and with live musical accompaniment by REFLEKTOR2 (Jan Kopinski on saxophone, Steve Iliffe on piano).
The afternoon’s programme began with the short avant-garde film Manhatta, an experimental collaboration by painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand that produced this visually stunning representation of New York. Images of the vast metropolis are cut with intertitles taken from Walt Whitman’s Sparkles on the Wheel, which gives the film a slow, poetic rhythm. The montage editing used creates an association of meaning between shots. Aerial views of people swarming en masse around the city like ants are interweaved with a shot of hundreds of gravestones from the same perspective. The music, which began as a soft jazz, develops into something increasingly darker as it introduces jarringly eerie notes. It becomes evident that the swarming, nameless workers in this industrial world are heading towards death and are easily replaceable.
The modern city is a source of fascination and fear, documented through images of trains, steamships, skyscrapers, the beautiful curves of bridges and arches, smoking chimneys, and complex machinery. As an historical record it most importantly uncovers how a city is built, showing the human labour and effort involved in producing these famous gargantuan marble and iron constructions. Manhatta is a fitting tribute to New York, but one that manages to be honest without being judgemental. Berlin, Symphony of a City is structured around a typical day, which is a familiar mode in city symphonies such as À propos de Nice (1930), Rien que les heures (1926), and Man with a Movie Camera (1929), all of which are included in the Barbican’s ‘City Symphonies’ series (along with René Clair’s Paris qui dort ).Hugely successful upon its original release with both avant-garde and popular audiences, Berlin is divided into five acts and begins with the train journey to the city.
The opening act shares the slightly dark tone of Manhatta, with fast music and rapid editing giving the film a fractured quality. Abstract black and white lines merge with the train tracks to produce ambiguity and confusion. The audience is then thrown onto the empty, early morning streets of Berlin where creepy shop window dummies create an unsettling sense of the uncanny.
However, this mood is transformed when the place awakens and life is introduced to the scene. Cats wander the pavements, a man walks his dog, and then the city workers travel in flocks to start another working day. Human (and animal) life is revealed to be the very essence of a city.
Technology and machinery in this modern age serves as a leitmotif, and is filmed with curiosity and vigour. Trains, trams, fair rides, and industrial and printing equipment give constant motion to a shot, which REFLEKTOR2 emphasised in the frantic energy of their music. This pulsing beat of the film highlights the vibrancy and variety of life in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, where women do their daily chores and schoolchildren chatter and the poor eat unappetising portions of offal as the rich dine at fancy restaurants, divided by class but not by basic human requirement. Leisure activities and night-time entertainments such as ice-skating, fashion shows, and lively cabaret performances provide pleasure at the end of a day that will all be inevitably repeated the next day.
It was quite an experience to see these visually beautiful films with the added extra of live musical accompaniment. Judging by the success of Berlin, Symphony of a City and Manhatta, I have no doubt that the rest of the Barbican’s ‘City Symphonies’ series will prove equally as popular.