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“Symphony of a Great City” by Walter Ruttman

An in-depth analysis of any film allows viewers to appreciate the work as a piece of art. It explains all the working parts and encourages a better understanding of what is happening on the screen. However, the whole film depends on the theme, characters, their conflicts, as well as on style, music, and movements, which make it more real and meaningful to the viewer. Emotional content can be represented in the story structure, character dialogues, and even visual cues.

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When analyzing a film, it is essential to pay attention to all these aspects to understand what impact they have. This essay will describe several excerpts from the movie Berlin: Symphony of a Great City created by Walter Ruttman with a close analysis of urban space depiction. Further, the usage of film montage features, including the use of camera movement, sound, music, color, and other clues that contribute to the impression from the film, will be discussed.

Expression from the Film

The movie shows how Berlin lived in the early twentieth century since it was filmed in 1927. The only actor in the film is Berlin, the large industrial city. The symphony consists of millions of human faces, which in the frame are brought together with everything that accompanies them when they move, hurry, rest. Throughout the movie, the author’s love for mechanics and technical details is felt. Individual frames are saturated with reverence for technology, mechanics. The first 7-10 minutes of the film is made up of the movement of vehicles only. In this city, the man is not the main one; he is a detail, a small component of a large city.

In Symphony of a Great City, Berliners are represented as molecules or ants in a giant anthill. This feeling is created by the moving pictures of the street bustle, rotating parts of cars, dancing cabaret artists, newsboys, piles of buildings, traffic lights that contribute to the expressionist style of narration.

Even though the film is soundless; its musical component is evident in it, the Symphony of a Great City seems to be rhythmic, musical due to the movements of the camera and the editing of episodes. The rhythm, which is created by a montage of constantly changing locations, people, transport means make, embodies the melody and harmony of Berlin. The connection of two separate frames, the links between which, may not be obvious, leads to the appearance of a conditional third, which a viewer sees subconsciously. Ruttman creates a subtext in a conversation between two people that cannot be noticed at once.

The adopted montage principle that Ruttman used was based on the connection of movement with another motion, form with another shape, which is represented in the frames of railways dynamics. The experience of Berlin contributed to the emergence of new narrative details, abstract shapes, and compositions, an occasional collision of unexpected scenes expressed the urbanization and fast pace of the city (Mennel, pg. 23). Ruttman implemented abstractive principles, combining, for example, the movement of underground railway trains along diagonals and parallels.

Close Analysis of Scenes

Ruttman made the film with a cross-section montage, that is, using rhythmic editing as a way to convey the mood and rapid pace of the city. The essence of the film’s editing was reduced to associative combinations of the movements of objects with the rhythm of the town. Professor Hake states that the Symphony of a Great City evokes “the sensory experience” for the viewer with the help of “associative montage” that catches fragmented pieces of the contemporary reality in the city (Hake, pg. 130). This method of editing can be mainly seen in episodes with the connection of car wheels and human feet.

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Showing the life and rhythm of the capital from dawn to midnight, the director admirably edited a Symphony of a Great City with visual impressions, following the path and the method of Dziga Vertov (Kracauer, pg. 65). Unexpected compositions and analogies help Ruttman to develop the “spatial continuum” of the city (Kracauer, pg. 65). The director was trying to make a film in a documentary style by using profound, comprehensive, and sometimes excessive frames (Kracauer, pg. 65). A scene of expensive dishes in a restaurant combined with a view of the food that poor people eat every day expresses the cross-section method Ruttman used to present the life of the metropolis.

Artificial figures that Ruttman presents in the film, such as mannequins that are organized in precise lines, resemble the alluring commodities that people want to buy. The scene is combined with the frame of the flow of masses that move to work and back every day and can be seduced by mannequins (Mennel, pg. 38). The mix of these frames suggests the rise of consumer society that would drive the economy of the metropolis in the future.

Movements of marching soldiers and flocks of animals show the increasing abundance of people growing in the metropolis at an unpredictable pace. Flows of masses are interrupted by the shots of industrial machines and mechanisms that are huge in comparison to humans (Mennel, pg. 39). The frames give a clue to the viewer that the means of production and communication occupy minds and cities.

A vast canvas of big city life unfolds in front of the viewer due to the interweaving of scenes. Each fragment is in a dialogue with neighboring; this feature creates a diverse musical narration. A very remarkable scene for the viewer is presented where employees of the factory go home, which is connected with a scene where a herd of submissive animals is driven to the slaughter. With the help of editing, Ruttman brought such different stages together several times.

However, sometimes this metaphorical comparison took on a slightly offensive meaning as in the frame with workers, and the analogy of movements that the director used faded into the background. “Voyeuristic record of the little human dramas” suggests the growing differences between classes and the tension that might arise in social interactions, according to analysts (Donald, pg. 86). Very few scenes of human lives, such as the death of a woman and a scene with a prostitute and a man who picks her up, play a symbolic role and emphasize the generalizing nature of life in Berlin.

Moving from one scene to another and focusing on specific subjects, makes the viewer think of Berlin as an exciting, powerful machine of progress, rich in its grandeur and fullness. For instance, the close-up is not given to the typist in one of the scenes, but to the keys of her typewriter, which merge into a spiral that is reminiscent of Ruttman’s previous cubist experiments (Kaes, Baer, and Cowan, pg. 450). In the Symphony of a Great City, the spiral with its circular walls divides the tools of production and the personnel of factories, and the working class and the bourgeoisie. The Berlin’s symphony consists not of horns, but shouts and industrial screech.

Expressionistic tilted camera angles, different film speeds, short editing turn the Symphony of a Great City into expression and abstraction. Hake states that the movie represents “social and spatial qualities” of Berlin in visual senses (pg. 127). Although the professor claims that the primary aim of the Symphony of a Great City was to give “visual pleasure,” not a criticizing review, the film’s non-traditional narrative was abrupt and decisive (Hake, pg. 127). The viewer may notice various disparate facts and frames, and the worship of a giant working machine, and the feeling of being lost in this inexorable social fate, and the growing anarchist rebellion, expressed in the audacious rhythm of editing, cutting the space of the mighty city.

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To conclude, one might say that Ruttman captivated the viewer with a visual analysis of the dynamics of urban life, vivid comparisons, and bold rhythmic editing. Even though the film was apolitical, it came out quite bold with impressive controversial comparisons. Movements, montage, and frames highlight Ruttman’s opinion that life flows continuously; it has no beginning or end, and the film became a reflection of Berlin and acted as a mirror for the metropolis. The presence of a big city in the chaos of episodes accidentally spied on camera pictures with the help of editing, turned into a visual symphony of a great city.


Donald, J. (2017). The city, the cinema: Modern spaces. In Jenks, C. (Ed.), Visual culture (pp. 77-95). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Hake, S. (1994). “Urban spectable in Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of the Big City”, in Dancing on the volcano: Essays on the culture of the Weimar Republic. Columbia, SC: Camden House.

Kaes, A., Baer, N., & Cowan, M. (2016). The promise of cinema: German film theory, 1907–1933. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kracauer, S. (1960). Theory of film: The redemption of physical reality. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Mennel, B. (2008). Cities and cinema. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

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