HarmonieBand presents Berlin: Symphony of a Great City | HOME, Manchester

1982 European Cup winners Aston Villa have a song that goes, “Aston Villa FC / We’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen”. Now, I’m all for the occasional self-congratulation, but history – and that slippery adjective – have a way of making you eat your words. Although Jack Grealish is very talented, it couldn’t be said The Villains have rescaled past summits or laid a claim to that superlative title. Something similar could be said, however, of a city that was once-great and is now great once again. No, not Birmingham. Berlin.

At the time of its release in 1927, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City was in essence an advert and pictorial pat on the back for one of Western Civilisation’s most accomplished metropolises, a city that was a living testament to High Romantic architecture and utopian city planning. Now galvanised by the live instrumentation of the HarmonieBand trio, Walther Ruttmann’s film has a hypnotic and unusual feel to it, inviting an unfurling of readings and associations.

The most unavoidable lens through which to see this 65-minute feature is dramatic irony. We watch it full in the knowledge of the series of tragedies, complicated births and false dawns that would dog the city well into the 1980s. It is only seven years after this film – where these Berlinners were the image of a cohesive, hard-working populace – that Berlin was curdling in hate-speech and it’s dynamics shifting towards something more sinister. The proximity of the Third Reich can’t not be seen, and so we watch a five-act montage of a modernity so rampant, ambitious and unquestioning that you’re amazed it wasn’t co-opted sooner.

In combination with the film are composer, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Paul Robinson, along with the serpentine interplay of Connie Pharoah’s viola and Dai Pritchard’s sax and clarinet. Robinson introduces the performance with reference to Ruttmann’s way of talking about cinema through musical metaphors – ‘symphony’ ‘counterpoint’ – and the analogy is fitting; we are treated to juxtapositions of sight and sound that make moments of euphony constructed nearly 100 years apart.

The foundations for a mesmerising score are laid by the photography of Ruttmann’s cinematographers, who balance images of frenetic bustle with moments of strange, prosaic beauty. Their choices of focus reassert the idea that in silent cinema the framed image sings just as loudly. The fascinations of the time are lingered on, one of which is an odd obsession with animatronics in shop windows. Even as they cheerily shine the same shoe or hammer in a nail infinitely, there is something deeply unsettling about their apple cheeks and independent limbs. Although they’re clearly a hangover from the visual style of the likes of Punch, their lurid, caricatured faces can’t help but presage the posters that would blight the city in the following decade, selling suspicion instead of hobnailed boots.

Aldous Huxley, a young man at this time, later wrote, “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach”. With that in mind, watching this film can at times feel like being enclosed in dense perspex, impotent to change what followed and unable to hear the warnings from our own future. The penultimate act’s blaring, fixated frame reading, “Gild. Gild. Gild”, or “Money. Money. Money.” should be sufficient, but somehow just isn’t.

I would much rather see Aston Villa win the European Cup again than witness even the cheapest imitation of the barbarism that made this film eat its words. Unfortunately, I know which of the two is more likely.

by David Adamson

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