City Symphonies

by Alex Barrett, director of London Symphony

In the 1920s, a new genre of creative documentary emerged: the city symphony. Drawing upon the actualities and travelogues of cinema’s earliest days, the city symphonies combined influences from the fine arts (especially poetry, photography and music) to create avant-garde portraits of city life. Often structured as a ‘day in the life’ of their given municipality, their aim was to capture something of the spirit of their subject – of its hustle and bustle, or its calm, serene nature (or, more often, the juxtaposition of the two which characterises everyday life).

The first of these films came in 1921, with Manhatta, made as a collaboration between the influential modernist photographers Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand (the former of whom would also go on to become a renowned Precisionist painter). For their intertitles, Sheeler and Strand utilised verse by Walt Whitman, helping to link the new genre inexorably with the medium of poetry. Later films, like Joris Ivens’ Rain (1929), would dispense with the written word altogether, and find their poetry solely in their use of image and montage.

Today, the two most famous and enduring examples of the genre are Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), the latter of which was voted the best documentary of all time in a 2014 poll in Sight & Sound.

Prior to making Berlin, Ruttmann had been a pioneering member of the German avant-garde, creating a series of experimental animated ‘light plays’ Opus I-IV (1921-1925), which focused on the rhythm and motion of abstract forms and, as such, is a clear predecessor for the rhythmical, musical approach to montage found in Berlin.

In making his film, Ruttmann had been influenced by Vertov’s theoretical writings and earlier practical work, giving Berlin and Movie Camera an unusual back-and- forth chain of influence. Released two years after Berlin, Movie Camera took the city symphony genre a stage further: Vertov created a panoply of Soviet life by assembling footage captured in a number of cities, and charged his film with a political purpose which Ruttmann had minimalised in favour of a more aesthetically- minded approach. But Vertov, of course, was also a great formal innovator and, taken together, Berlin and Movie Camera remain remarkable for the sheer explosive dynamism of their filmic experimentation.

Berlin and Movie Camera are significant for the way they capture the spirit of their time – something made all the more poignant in the case of Berlin, given the indelible mark that would left on the city by the Second World War, just a few short years later (it’s perhaps important to note that Ruttmann was a trained architect, and that Berlin‘s focus, like that of many city symphonies, is on the concrete reality of the city itself as much as on those who inhabit it).

The time in which these original city symphonies were made was, of course, the roaring twenties, an era marked by the legacy of another war, and one which had followed on from the tail end of the Second Industrial Revolution. Industry and manual labour loom large in these silent films, like markers of a mechanically-driven, pre-digital age. It’s something I gave a lot of thought to when planning London Symphony (2017), my own contemporary contribution to this bygone genre. In making the film, I looked back to the filmmaking style of the 1920s, creating a silent, black and white piece which (I hope) is both a loving tribute and a modern spin on the city symphony (like Ruttmann before me, I took the ‘symphonic’ part seriously, and worked closely with composer James McWilliam, who has created an original composition to accompany the film). By using this ‘old’ style to look at modern life, I hoped to shine a light on the present through the lens of the past, much as historians do, and also to highlight some of the differences between the past and present – such as that between the industrialisation of the 1920s and the digitisation of the 2010s. For although London Symphony is, undoubtedly, a film about London, it is also a film about life in the modern era – a portrait of its time, much like the films that went before it.

Such a notion – the city symphony as portrait of an era – can become even more apparent when watching a number of city symphonies in short succession. When doing so, it is impossible not to compare and contrast them. Thankfully, such a comparison is fruitful, revealing differences in eras, in the approach of the filmmakers, and between the cities themselves. For instance, Ruttmann’s Berlin famously begins with a train hurtling towards the city centre, while André Sauvage’s Etudes sur Paris (1928) begins with a trip on a leisurely barge, also headed towards the city centre. So can we, from this, deduce that Paris is a more leisurely city than Berlin? And, if so, what else can we glean from the films’ extended portraits of their cities? Are there further distinctions to be made between them?

In fact, one of the most interesting things about watching multiple city symphonies together is seeing how they coalesce and dovetail with one another, pointing towards the universality of the human experience. Another Paris film, Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1926 Rien que les heures, opens with a provocative intertitle stating that ‘all cities would look the same were it not for the monuments which distinguish them’. This gave rise to a train of thought which ran through my mind throughout the production of London Symphony: what makes London unique? And, perhaps more to the point, what makes it universal? When making the film, I wanted to celebrate the cosmopolitan nature of London (something which feels especially important in this era of divisive politics), meaning that, in some sense, I was striving to uncover the myriad of cultural influences found within London, and look at what makes it a ‘city of the world’.

City symphonies, then, may – on the surface – be films about individual cities, but at their heart they explore the universality of human life within the built environment. At the start of Movie Camera, Vertov declares the film’s form to be “directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema” – a universal language of images. What could possibly be more appropriate for this most universal and accessible of genres?