Thursday, October 18, 2007

Berlin Wie Es War (1950, Germany)

(Once, long ago, I sent a lot of reviews to the magazine Cult Movies, who said that they would use some and then send me a copy of any issue where a review of mine appeared. A year or so later, I stumbled upon issue 36 and found this review printed in it. Well, despite e-mails back and forth and their promises to send me copies of any magazines in which my texts appear, they never sent me a copy of any issue, number 36 or any other number, in which a review of mine may have appeared. Haven't bought a copy of the magazine since, actually.)

Depending on the source, Leo de Laforgue filmed this documentary sometime between 1935 and 1943, but for a variety of reasons it wasn’t released until after the Second World War in 1950. Opening with the title Sinfonie Einer Weltstadt, which translates roughly to "Symphony of a Metropolis,“ it is clear that Laforgue was trying to link his film historically to Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 silent masterpiece Berlin, die Sinfonie einer Grossstadt (released in the US as The Symphony of a Great City). Actually, while de Laforgue’s film is interesting in its own way, it is nonetheless so extremely inferior to Ruttmann’s film that the pathetic attempt to link the two is nothing less than embarrassing. Ruttmann’s film is a masterpiece of early documentation and presentation that focuses on the pulsating rhythm of the city for one day, from dawn until late in the night. Very much influenced by the attitudes and theories of the Neue Sachlichkeit ("New Objectivity" or "New Realism") art movement of Germany during the Weimar Republic (which included such painters as Otto Dix and George Gross), Ruttmann’s visually exciting, brilliantly filmed and edited silent movie was as much of a celebration as it was a jaundiced criticism of Berlin and its inhabitants at the time. Laforgue’s film, on the other hand, lacks the jaded but critical eye of the earlier ode to Berlin, and draws most of its strength from the unintended position it gained after the war: that of being a visual documentation of what the city was like before the machinations of the National Socialists—that’s Nazis to people like you and me—led to its (and the Fatherland’s) destruction.
In fact, when Laforgue was making his film, he did so under the auspices of the government (as was any film made in Germany back then): Laforgue’s film was originally meant to be more or less a celebration of "Berlin, the Reichshauptstadt," extolling the city’s people, its buildings and streets, its cultural and entertainment possibilities, as well as almost every other aspect of the city’s general infrastructure one might think of. Ironically enough, once Laforgue finished the film, it was banned by Paul Josef Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s Minister of Culture. Between the creation of the film and its completion, World War Two was already in full swing, and Allied bombs had long begun to rain from the sky, flattening everything Laforgue’s film so venerated, and Goebbels had no desire to remind Berliners what their city had been like before the powers-that-be led their country down the ugly path into war and death.
After The Nation of Beer and Wurst had been pulverized, the controlling powers eventually allowed the film to be released, with the new, more up-to-date title Berlin Wie Es War, which literally translates to "Berlin As It Was." And indeed, that is what the film shows, complete with some of the most obnoxious background music ever made. (Supplied by Prof. Rudolf Katting, the good man tortures the viewer with 3 or 4 or 5 German standards—"Schlagers" as they are called by the natives—rendered in 5 or 6 or 7 different orchestral arrangements that do nothing less than present a damned powerful argument that Lawrence Welk was actually a very talented musician.) Probably in the hope that the experience of this film might function at some educational level, as late as the end of the 1980s Berlin Wie Es War still had an afternoon showing a couple of times a week in a (West) Berlin movie theatre. (It still has regular screenings here in Berlin, though no longer as often.)
The Berlin Wie Es War is interesting, as are all films that document a place and time that is forever gone. That aside, the music sucks and the editing is painful; numerous shots seem to last mere seconds, and while the technique of Montage Shot works well for pop videos and Schwarzennegger films, in this documentary it merely strains the eyes and annoys. (One can’t help but wonder whether the brutal editing was actually part of the original film, for it seem odd that a movie made initially to celebrate the Reichshauptstadt at a time when there wasn’t a single circumcised man left in the city completely lacks even one Nazi uniform, flag, decoration or any other sort of visual reference to the country’s fascist regime.) For all its numerous flaws, Berlin Wie Es War is still one of the few films around that documents one of Germany’s most important cities at a time in which it was still flourishing, and that alone makes it an interesting visual experience.


Unknown said...

Leo's film was no pop video. He owned a 8m roll camera that allowed only the shortest of takes.
Your critic of the flim rings true, Leo and Brigitte certianly went with the flow. The film was later released as a Frontstadt filck, and the commentary is much more obnoxious than the background music.

Anonymous said...

No pop video. Leo's camera had an 8mroll.
Your critic of the film rings true.
Leo and Brigitte went with the flow.
He was an epigone.

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