“Symphony of a Great City”

Clip from film of three (?) Jewish men, one sporting Hitler moustache and a goatee. (YouTube)

This video of Berlin made in 1927 – halfway between World War I and World War II – by German filmmaker Walter Ruttman, takes viewers through a day in the life of the metropolis, from morning to noon to night. Every slice of German society from high to low is documented, clip by clip, with a sound track rising or falling in tempo with the upbeat or downbeat scenes rolling by. The colorization retains the feel of the historic black and white. A sense of foreboding overcasts much of the film, whether the scenes are happy or sad. I’ve never seen a more subtle evocation of an entire culture and society, and this portrait of the Weimar Republic heralds the coming storm without pity.

As the day opens, shots of a train, trackage and overhead electricity lines push into the rising sunlight as a locomotive speeds toward Berlin. The train passes through suburbs, by factories under construction, and into the city as workers head off toward their plants. A heavy emphasis on industrial automation forms a repeated motif. Trains, trains, trains! Trolleys, traffic, traffic cops in control at busy intersections. Workers with lunch pails enter factory gates. Later, wealthy diners lunch at outdoor cafés. Old man sells little girls’ frocks. Cat rummages in garbage. Elderly Jew sports a Hitler moustache (and a goatee). The sorry plight of work horses. Man harangues crowd at outdoor rally. Fisticuffs in street seen from window above. Young woman looks over edge of bridge into maelstrom. Lunch consumed by rich and poor. Early signs of Nazi party. Young mothers watch as children splash in wading pond. Little girl pulls tail of lion cub at zoo. Dinner consumed by rich and poor. Lovers pair off, embrace on park bench. Nighttime activities. Dancing, drinking, the cinema, Charlie Chaplin’s feet. Show girls in dressing rooms. Acrobats, chorus lines. Man squeezes his girl’s arm as he hands her into taxi. Going home as night descends on city.

At 107 minutes in length, Symphony of a Great City is far longer than most city videos I have posted on this blog, but it is probably the best. Enjoy.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to “Symphony of a Great City”

  1. jonassota says:

    Hey David,

    I’ve been enjoying your newsletters. Just wanted to express a few impacts this newsletter had on me in case you’d like to know. Firstly, the word “Jew” often comes off as a pejorative. “Jewish man/woman/person/etc” lands more softly. Also, the “Hitler mustache” comment feels, to me, distasteful and unnecessary.

    Cheers, and be well,



    • Thank you, Jonassota, for your kind words and gentle demurral from my use of the word Jew (I did use “Jewish” in the picture caption). I don’t think the single syllable is pejorative at all. Sometimes people in complaining bring the pejorative feeling into play where it has no role. Maybe this is such a case. I respect your feelings, but the hirsutical choice (if that is a word) was of interest to me, and it did not occur to me that its mention carried any baggage.


  2. penwithlit says:

    Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Most interesting and useful background to this unsettled period.


  3. LazyReader says:

    One of the things of great cities is social acceptance and good neighbors. But also how they treat visitors. And how visitors treat them…..

    When you look at the new US embassy in London, it’s living embodiement of Big Government playing big bully. They wanted Choice real estate, the billion dollar structure is coated in plastic. It’s design harkons a Borg Cube, But reality is it’s an homage to the castles of UK, Her plastic side panels resemble arrow firing battlements. It has a moat, encroaching security walls.

    On the plus side its landscaping features let people get in proximity without fences, chainlink or jersey barriers much akin to every federal building you see in DC.

    Meanwhile Paris’ US Embassy is a dignified public building, repurposed from an old one.


  4. LazyReader says:

    There’s two types of people, those who like cities and those who don’t
    Jefferson hated cities, he was impressed by Paris…..
    Adams who thought cities conveyed culture.
    Cities are more than 10,000 years old, and for most of that time, every human-made item used in those cities, whether kitchenware, furniture, or clothing, was a custom-made one-off. With the advent of the industrial revolution, cities became epicenters for early manufacturing.

    Factories are not new concepts, Archaeological evidence shows “Mass production” of goods by template. The Venetian Arsenal in the Middle Ages, apparently produced nearly one ship EVERY day, in what was effectively the world’s first factory which, at its height, employed 16,000 people.

    By the 20th century, the factory concept emerged to larger products……
    The first factories were powered by water or mechanical power, hence they were built where cities were built near water. With the advent of the steam engine, you could build factories anywhere. As consumer products grew in size, factories in cities made less sense…

    As long as human civilization survives, there will always be a place for cities, but that doesn’t mean they have to be as dense as Manhattan’s 70,000 people per square mile, New York City’s 27,000 per square mile, San Francisco’s 17,000 per square mile, or even Seattle’s 7,000 per square mile. Nor will they need downtown skyscrapers or suburban midrises. To paraphrase architect Louis Kahn, planners should let the city be what it wants to be and limit their job to making sure it works as efficiently and effectively for its residents as possible. Or as another famous phrase there’s only two ways to do something, Voluntarily or with a gun to your head…


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