21 October 2014

Two films by Walter Ruttmann

One advantage of enjoying films from the archives of silent cinema is that those films are often available online to share with others. Such is the case for the two German films I saw last night at the Film Society screening in Wellington. The two 1920s 'portrait' films shown, both by the Frankfurt-born Walter Ruttmann, were the global gazetteer Melodie der Welt (Melody of the World) from 1929 and the Berlin-glorifying Berlin: Die Sinfonie der GroƟstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City) from 1927. Both were 'half-length' features, with Melodie running 49 minutes and Berlin just over an hour. Each has its own Germanic charms.

Melodie is hugely ambitious and must have taken ages to shoot, with its multitude of film imagery from all over the globe offering a hopeful view of human endeavour and the similarities amongst peoples. It's a hectic journey. For example, the film's third act contains parallel scenes including the start of a pampered, upper-class woman's day in Germany compared with that of a peasant worker in Southeast Asia, and illustrating how a geisha's hair is prepared, before hurrying on to a survey of languages of the world (with a smattering of humour in a moderately bizarre cameo from George Bernard Shaw asking some chap for directions to St Albans), meals of every type, dance and music, and the toil of work followed by the joy of returning home at the end of it. (Note if you're viewing the clip, the film does have a soundtrack - it's just the first few minutes that are silent).

The more focused Berlin is so busy and lively it should have been an inspiration for Richard Scarry's 'Cars & Trucks & Things That Go'. Berlin under Ruttmann's lens is a pumping, thriving mega-machine, churning out heavy industrial produce and shunting thousands of denizens in every direction through its massive train stations. It's a great example of documentary film-making and a wonderful record of a day in the life of a proud city before the 1929 stock market crash and the coming war swept so much away.

Ruttmann died in 1941 from injuries sustained during front-line action as a war photographer.

See also:
Movies: The Famous Five in German, 1 June 2014
Art: NZ posters by young German artists, 30 June 2012
Blog: My top 5 museums in Berlin, 24 June 2011
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