A couple of years ago I signed up for an adult education course looking at the history of documentary film in the 20th century.
The course introduced me to the concept of city symphonies about which I was completely unaware but for which I became hugely enthusiastic.
During my necessary chemotherapy resting periods I’ve started re-visiting city symphonies and enjoying once again some of the marvellous examples that are available on-line.
The concept of the city symphony evolved during the 1920s in the era of the silent film.
There’s a good explanation on the British Film Institute (BFI) website which begins:
The city symphony is an unusual genre, which belongs almost entirely to just one decade: the 1920s. It’s a divided genre too. These silent films could celebrate the splendours of modernity or castigate the decadence and the degradation of urban life. Occasionally they do both. These urban documentaries have no stars, no characters and no plot. Their structure is borrowed from the movements and motifs of orchestral symphonies or the hours of the day, rather than the dynamics of narrative pacing.
At their most avant-garde, city symphonies are invigorating examples of pure cinema: movement and abstraction animated by the camera. At their most documentary in technique, city symphonies can be seen as the forerunner of slow cinema: minimalist in style, meticulous in observation.
The best known city symphony is Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927).
Berlin was created by some of the greatest names in German silent cinema. Its avant-garde director Walter Ruttmann, screenwriter Carl Mayer and cinematographer Karl Freund all share credits for the screenplay.
Ruttmann cut the film which is important as city symphonies are shaped by the edit as much as the screenplay. The musical score was written by Edmund Meisel, who also provided music for Battleship Potemkin (1925).
Berlin typifies the city symphony in many ways, from its strict day-in-the-life structure to its emphasis on the fast pace and anonymity of urban living.
The film runs for just over an hour and if you don’t have time to watch it from start to finish it’s worth dipping into at different points to get a feel for it and the genre.
Hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
Thanks for reading my blog today.
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