The Clamor of the Big City

News from 11/15/2022

The most important Weimar-era silent films about Berlin are being shown at the Musikinstrumenten-Museum as part of its Wednesday evening film series

Kinoleinwand in einen Museum, vorne ein Mann an einer Orgel
Foto: Christian Elsner

By Kevin Hanschke

Neon signs turn night into day. People stream into pleasure palaces. Elevated trains hurtle between the buildings. Traffic backs up at Potsdamer Platz. In Charlottenburg, Luna Park and its amusements provide a diversion from the routine of everyday life. And at the weekends, the growing social stratum of salaried workers travels to the city’s nearby recreational areas – the Wannsee and Schlachtensee lakes and the woods of Grunewald – using the electrified S-Bahn train, naturally. That is Berlin.

While that may sound much like the present day, those are the images conveyed by four films produced during the latter days of the Weimar Republic, films that portray the German capital with all its glitter and shadow, its raptures and its abysses.

Starting on November 16, the Wednesday night film series at the Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Museum of Musical Instruments) will be devoted to the most important Berlin-themed silent films of this golden era of German cinema. The four scheduled films are Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), Berlin – die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis), Menschen untereinander (People to Each Other and Asphalt. As usual, the films will be accompanied by the legendary Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ at the museum, which is the largest of its kind on the European continent and one of the few remaining operational theater organs in Germany. The industrialist Werner Ferdinand von Siemens purchased the theater organ in 1929. It has 4 manuals, 1228 pipes and more than 200 stops and has been a highlight of the collection for decades.

“The film series at the Musikinstrumenten-Museum ushered in a renaissance in silent film and theater organs in Berlin in the 1990s,” says organist Jörg Joachim Riehle, who has been working for the museum on a freelance basis since 1989. Since 1993, he has been accompanying silent films on the organ. This season’s silent films at the Musikinstrumenten-Museum will be accompanied by both Riehle and organist Anna Vavilkina. The selection of films being shown was curated by Katrin Herzog. “We’re arranging the musical accompaniment to four films that are closely connected to the history of this city,” she says.

The Mighty Wurlitzer is a very sophisticated instrument and a big help for tasks like this, Herzog adds. “The number of possible musical motifs is impressive,” says Riehle, who has lived in Berlin since 1983. “The organ is ideal for simulating the background noise and the sound of the big city.”

In days past, people were drawn to the cinema by a longing for something different, the need to escape from daily routine, and the desire to amuse themselves. The underlying theme is the fast pace of city life, with the burgeoning city of Berlin and its four million residents as the main stage and urban life as the prevailing storyline in an era that reached for the stars and was ultimately dashed to pieces in a blaze of destruction. The city of Berlin provided inspiration for the most important directors of that period.

The four films being shown erected a cinematic monument to the apparent modernity of that era. Joe May’s film Asphalt from 1928 deals with the nightlife of the city and crime on the streets from big-time to small-time. Two years before that, Walther Ruttmann succeeded in capturing on film a day in the life of the city in Berlin - Die Sinfonie der Großstadt. And finally, in 1929, Robert Siodmak brought to the screen the recreational outings of the salaried middle class in the experimental film Menschen am Sonntag. Riehle would like to reinterpret the score of the latter film. “There will be interspersions of popular songs from back then – Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo (Just a Gigolo) by Julius Brammer, or Wochend‘ und Sonnenschein (Weekend and Sunshine) by the Comedian Harmonists. Songs that represent the liberal and frivolous atmosphere of those years,” he says.

But there is also more serious subject matter. As early as 1926, the director Gerhard Lamprecht, who would later make Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives), filmed Menschen untereinander (People to Each Other), a study of social class and relationships in the Berlin of the interwar years. The movie is set in a classic Berlin apartment building and has a documentary style, although the events it portrays are fictional. Like Siodmak, Lamprecht works with amateur actors in order to sketch as authentic a portrait as possible of the apartment block and the relationships among the various social classes. While the residents in the building facing the street live in great affluence, there is poverty and misery in the lodgings facing the courtyards. Lamprecht was inspired by the drawings of Berlin artist Heinrich Zille.

Much as Zille’s pictures suggest the rift in society, the medium of film itself became a kaleidoscope of an emerging social order – which led to incredible commercial successes for the cinemas of the Weimer Republic. The number of movie houses rose to five thousand between 1918 and 1933. Visiting the cinema became the most important pastime of the middle class. At no other time was the German film industry so influential and innovative. “These four productions show how creative the film scene was back then, and how diverse, exhilarating and vibrant Berlin was,” says Riehle. “The Ku’damm as the hub of night life; the southwest of the city as a recreational destination; Potsdamer Platz with the first traffic light in Germany – all of that was destroyed by the Nazis just a few years later.” Since Riehle enjoys providing musical accompaniment to dramatic films and horror films, more than any other, he is looking forward to the screening of Asphalt. He describes it as “a study of class structures and social conditions that uses the roaring traffic as a metaphor for looming collapse.”

Asphalt and Menschen am Sonntag are also leading examples of the final phase of silent film – and along with the other two productions, they are still a source of inspiration for film directors. This may be found interesting, because a couple of the films being shown, which are now received as iconic masterpieces of world cinema on both a theoretical and practical level, were at the time viewed more critically in the arts pages of the newspapers.

The film critic Siegfried Kracauer, reviewing Ruttmann’s Sinfonie der Großstadt, opined: “How the image sequences fly past one another so that all the provincials are carried away with the frenzy – all that is fortunately not Berlin itself but only an aggregation of muddled ideas about a city hatched by the brains of the literati.” For Kracauer, in other words, the Berlin portrayed in the film is a figment and not reality. In Asphalt, as well, many scenes showing the pulsing nightlife of the big city were produced through the magic of stagecraft, props and scene design. Berlin’s pleasure districts were reconstructed in the Ufa studios in Babelsberg, and the traffic was acted out by extras. That is another aspect of the film of the 1920s: it is, at times, a distorted reflection of a rising and, at the same time, crumbling society, and this, too, is convincingly illustrated by the film series. This season, the Wednesday evening cinema program presents this fine line – the line between gangster film and big-city fairytale, between reality and phantasmagoria.

For more information:

Wednesday Night Cinema

 [L1]People to Each Other : This is apparently the commonly used translation of the film title "Menschen untereinander."

Weiterführende Links

Mittwochskino im Musikinstrumenten-Museum

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