[For Film 220]
Railways, for the last century, has been the metaphor for development and progress. It could be said that a certain country’s richness could be grasped by the state of its railways. It’s very much fitting for Walter Ruttman to open his film, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt, with shots from and of rail tracks and train cars, it introduces Berlin as a place of promise and development. Trains also feature an uninterruptible quality (but only until the next stop), which has reduced travel time for different sectors of society, allowing fast market exchange, in consequence, fast market growth. Economies depended a lot on this very idea of growth through speed – so much that speed became an end-all, be-all—and there’s a constant need for things to move faster.
Ruttman’s “city symphony” would find itself very generic to this day—as any known place (public, private, or otherwise) wanting to objectively present itself via the audio-visual medium would have taken cue from his documentary. Very true to its motive, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt isn’t as much of a film about the city-dwellers, but of the city—the concrete city—itself, as Ruttman himself would take note: “I had the idea of making something out of life, of creating a symphonic film out of the millions of energies that comprise the life of a big city.”
It can be observed that the film is obsessed on presenting the idea of “development thru speed”, (in short, of “accelerationism”, or an earlier form of it) with constantly moving frames, and not taking any cues of subjectivities for the people moving inside the frame. We might as well say that Ruttman’s lenses objectified the people as one of the concrete structures and market stores opening up their large store windows early in the morning. The people as one of the “millions of energies that comprise the life of a big city.” One would note that it tries to tell the life of the city objectively by also portraying the darker shades of it, but only to be bombarded again by images of beauty and promise of continued progress.
By the time of Ruttman’s film’s release, this ideology of speed isn’t new. Speed has been a promise and advocacy of the Futurists. Filippo Tomasso Marinetti has said back in 1909 in The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism that “the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” The new gas engines and race cars made it possible for the world to believe in the promise brought by speed.
But, even after a century, very few to none has questioned politically the idea of a development and progress dependent on speed. It is only until quite recently that Paul Virilio pointed out the need to imagine and critically scrutinize the ideology of speed through his studies on “Dromology”. But one needs to take note that it isn’t a criticism against progress rather of the propaganda of speed which preceded progress. Virilio would root back this ideology of speed to the Futurists, which, in consequence, gave birth to the Fascist ideology which dedicates its idea not just for speed but also for the need of war (Speed and Politics).
While Ruttman’s documentary was captured still a generation ahead of the Third Reich, the way the film showcased a promise of development through speed and its formal obsession with symphony as an aesthetic is an indicator of a (proto-)Fascist ideology presented in cinema. Subsequent images from Acts following the suicide sequence, images of contradictions, but mostly of beauty and celebration of a Great City—depicting the city as striving despite of these uglier shade – like a hero from a great Epic.
In recent times, producing a film in the mode of Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt isn’t harmful at all. In fact, most media practitioners would promote for one to varied aesthetic presentation as long as it “looks good”, while on the sidelines, critiquing the very formal elements of every film. There isn’t much difference between those who move in the industry of local cinema, the known reviewers and the Futurists: all they are obsessed with are beauty and speed. The sharp critic on the peripheral, then, is forced to heed the words of Edel Garcellano: “It is not without a distorted logic of its own that most formalists who venture into the historical epic would inevitably articulate, by reduction, the neo-fascist tendencies in their vision of existential-historical moments, mistaking their class-delineated sentiments for a universal, objective reality of society itself” (Reportage on the State of Class War and Philippine Poetry). Like Ruttman’s documentary, this obsession with beauty and progress blinds every person of those who actually struggle with the injustices brought about by the harshness of the methods of development.
Don’t we have our taste of it already? The last administration, the Aquino Administration, prides itself of great economic development brought about by various policies which only serves those who are already well-off. What is the cinema under Aquino’s administration but only an extended (6-year) version of Ruttman’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt appropriated with our country’s material conditions through the lens of those who gain something from this administration? Going back to my first statement, railways are great metaphor for growth and development: the Aquino Administration also prided itself with their Public-Private Partnership Program which has resulted to the continued privatization of our railways. “…profit precedes service on the mode of privatization – when a public utility is being surrendered for private interest thru the Public-Private partnership”. It’s quite fascinating actually, how easy it is for the people from the arts to embrace this very premise, to the point of almost glorification of the PPPP policy through their films, showcasing love and beauty foreshadowing the dilapidated trains and broken public service system.
- Quoted by an entry from Silents Are Golden website. Article by John de Bartolo.
- Statement from PakyuMRT.co. Translated from Tagalog.
DeBartolo, J. (2001). “Berlin, Symphony of a Great City” (1928). Silents Are Golden. Retrieved 3 September 2016, from http://www.silentsaregolden.com/DeBartoloreviews/rdbberlinsymphony.html
Garcellano, E. E. (1987). Reportage on the State of Class War and Philippine Poetry. In First Person Plural (p. 13). Manila: Kalikasan Press.
Marinetti, F.T. (1909). The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism. In Critical Writings: New Edition (p. 11). 2006, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
PakyuMRT!. (2016). PakyuMRT!. Retrieved 3 September 2016, from https://pakyumrt.co/
Virilio, P. (2006). Speed and politics: An essay on dromology (Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series) (M. Polizzotti, Trans.). Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).