Seventy-nine years after its release, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City remains one of the most powerful, innovative, and exciting documentaries ever made. Completely eschewing traditional narration, the film instead structures its imagery chronologically, giving the viewer a literal day in the life of a great city, set to a great score and edited both poetically and rhythmically. There, that’s probably gotten rid of most readers, who just stopped by hoping that I’d tear into She’s The Man by claiming that man or no man, I’d still do Amanda Bynes up the shitter. When I was in high school, I got the best grades in any of my classes, not because I was particularly intelligent, but rather because I figured out pretty quickly that all you had to do with textbook learning was read the first and last sentences of any paragraph to grasp anything you would ever possibly need for a test. As I get plenty of hate mail from people who clearly haven’t actually read anything on this site not included in the title and opening joke, I’ve decided to apply that reasoning here. Since this is the sort of film people who skipped an Intro To Documentary Cinema class need to have seen for their exam, I’m obliged to provide some intellectual content, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still have some fun, and by fun I mean disparage the German people. Still, despite criticisms that Berlin: Symphony of a Great City avoids addressing any relevant issues or provide any sort of social commentary, the film’s very nature and structure provides a beautiful example of the many ways in which the form of documentary cinema, and film itself, can be expanded beyond its traditional borders.
Director Walter Ruttman fills the movie with imagery that is almost distracting in its beauty, but every time we’re in danger of drifting off into a mindless appreciation of mere aesthetics, the robust, almost Eisensteinian editing draws us back into the film. Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, by focusing on a temporal structure instead of a traditional character driven narrative, manages to turn the city itself into a character. Which is great, because it means we don’t have to watch Marlene Dietrich stomp through a scene like a Teutonic Godzilla. I’m fairly positive the only reason she’s regarded as a beauty is because she looks like she’s made of granite, and therefore infinitely stronger than her detractors. All German women are frightening in their mannishness, like their culture so values strength and power their women are born with dicks bigger than my arm. Which is what makes German porn so terrifying. It’s not that they’re always defecating on each other or drinking sperm from milk buckets, it’s that I can’t tell who’s defecating on who, which causes me to question my sexuality even further than my Tiger Beat magazines do. And German men look like they collect Rutger Hauer action figures. So, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City is not only a fascinating viewing experience in its own right, it provides an example of the vast potential of the cinematic form, an example that, sadly, has rarely been followed in the subsequent century. Highly recommended, it's a film you should seek out, to find the buried treasure of entertainment within.