I had the opportunity last week to see a number of ‘city symphony’ films on the big screen. City symphonies are usually understood to be films made in the interwar period, which take a city as their main character. The most famous examples are probably Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Walther Ruttmann, 1927) and the Soviet-based Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929). There were also dozens of shorter city symphonies made, across the world.
The city symphony is a product of its time in that it reflects the contemporary interest in the modern urban experience. The classic symphony spans the course of one day, and draws attention to the speed of modern living. Eugene Deslaw’s Montparnasse (1930) includes some quick cuts and close-ups at the start of the film which give the impression that pedestrians are about to be hit by cars. A Day in Liverpool (Anson Dyer, 1929) shows hordes of workers rushing off the ferries and up the steps to their offices. They are so rushed, in fact, that one of them slips and drops his suitcase in his haste.
Another common feature of city symphonies is the inclusion of night-life. Electric lighting was relatively new at the start of the 20th century, and the bright neon lights advertising signs were a popular feature of city films such as Prague by Night (Svatopluk Innemann, 1928) and again Montparnasse.
It is curious, then, that despite the fact that these films were usually silent, they focus on the pace and noise of the metropolis. They derive their sense of haste and tension purely from their editing and cinematography. Although musical accompaniment could enhance the viewing experience, silent films usually did not have a set score so the musical presentation could be different in each cinema due to the background, style and experience of the different musicians.
In a time when technological advances greatly increased the speed of city life, cinematic technology was not advanced enough to adequately reflect this on the screen. Instead of being a ‘life-like’ experience full of noise and colour, cinema was forced to develop its own language to convey the everyday. This is of course true for all cinema, and especially all silent cinema, but the particular point of the city symphony is that it is only trying to depict the quotidian experience of city life. There is usually no overall narrative to emotionally engage with. And thus, by their nature, they are trying to do the impossible. Yet, as a result, this genre developed uniquely urgent and poetical ways of seeing the city.
A Day in Liverpool: Rushing to work