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Ruttmann’s and Meisel’s Berlin-Symphony

By Lothar Prox

The premiere of Walther Ruttmann’s masterpiece with live music by Edmund Meisel took place in Berlin’s Tauentzin Palast cinema on September 23, 1927. The composer conducted a 75-piece orchestra whose composition and positioning in the room indicated the filmmakers’ unusual intentions. In fact Ruttmann and Meisel wanted a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work”) with new effects. Both artists were obsessed by the idea of using the suggestive association of sound and image, together with changing tempi and rhythms to do aesthetic justice to the phenomenon of “Berlin” and to express the essence of the uniquely vital and sensual presence of the metropolis.

Comments about Berlin: Symphony of a City by Laurence Kardish

Video clip from Berlin: Symphony of a City

Such an aim was open to misunderstanding. Nearly all the reviews praised the formal superiority of the result, but several criticized the vagueness of its content. Evidently the intellectual élite of the time expected a realistic statement about urban and social conditions, about the economic and political structure and the resulting social contradictions as reflected in everyday life in Berlin.

Film historians have upheld these early objections, although Ruttmann’s achievement, even without the acoustic elements, is as effective as ever. The present attempt to reproduce the work in as authentic a form as possible may help to show the avant-garde practice of both artists in a new light, and to review the prejudice that they produced a failed documentary. In terms of the conceptions of its creators, “Berlin” corresponded to the coded messages of an abstract film. The idea came from Carl Mayer, the expressionist film writer. Under the influence of New Objectivity, he was fascinated by the documentary possibilities of a film comprising a cross section of the complex everyday realism of the capital. He was joined by Karl Freund, the renowned cameraman and head of production at Fox Europa, and Walther Ruttmann, until then an abstract filmmaker.

Shooting took a year. They met at dawn, during the day or at night; they wandered the great city, filming from high buildings, descending into the sewers or the tunnels of the underground system, submerging themselves—often with a hidden camera—in the pulsating life of the city: “Week after week we met at four o’clock in the morning to film the ‘dead city.’ Day after day I drove my recording van through the town, now catching out the spoilt residents of the Kurfürstendamm in the West End, now capturing Berlin at its poorest in the deteriorated Scheunenviertel district.” Ruttmann worked without a script. A system of index cards, which could be expanded and altered at any time, served as a means of orientation and control.

There was another colleague who influenced the aesthetic concept: Edmund Meisel, composer at Erwin Piscator’s theater, who had recently leapt to fame with his brilliant and congenial score for Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin. In close collaboration with Meisel, Ruttmann arranged whole complexes of images to correspond to musical intensification; he took his bearings from the structure of the composition, to which he subordinated several sequences. “The aim was to organize the temporal as rigorously as possible according to strictly musical principles. Many of the best shots had to be left out, because this could not be allowed to become a picture book; rather the structure had to be like a complex machine, which can only operate when every tiny element fits with absolute precision into the next.”

Meisel, for his part, had listened to the sounds, the rhythms, and the tempi of the city. “For this abstract [!] film, Berlin: Symphony of a City, I wrote the only score that could make it audible: a rhythmic composition that gives the film its acoustic tempo throughout. I listened to the noise of the city for hours, I noted the tempi of the sounds, the ringing bells of the tramcars, the honking motor horns, the rhythm of night work on the tracks. Best of all were the factories. The film music was intended as an integral part of the whole.”

There can be no doubt that the structural unity of film and music that Meisel helped bring about represented a considerable advance for the cinema of the 1920s, which up to that time had merely created the standards of an al-fresco art due to inadequate rehearsal time and economic pressures. This practice could not be expected to give more than atmospheric support. Edmund Meisel, regarded by colleagues as “the most important personality among the German silent film composers” (Paul Dessau), had the gift of realizing dramaturgical and musical projects in a way that was specifically cinematic. By using strange instruments, he achieved unusual effects and constructed exciting rhythmic sequences that seemed to vitalize the images. He was the master of an expressionist style that did not shrink from dissonant sound combinations, quarter-tone music, jazz, and noisy (Bruitiste) inventions. And he created adequate forms that the film demanded and that he intuitively sniffed out.

Meisel’s score must be regarded as lost. Conceived for a large orchestra, jazz ensemble, quarter-tone instruments, and numerous unpitched instruments (e.g., anvil and sheet iron), it allowed the development of extraordinary effects. Among the music that has survived is a piano master-edition, a sort of miniscore, which the musical directors of the smaller cinemas could adapt to fit their individual instrumental resources. Meisel stipulated: “The smaller the orchestra, the more essential it is to aim energetically at the primitive—in other words: follow the clear thematic line at the expense of the counterpoint.” At the end of 1980, the Foundation Deutsche Kinemathek Berlin, together with the Robert Schumann Institute in Düsseldorf (State College of Music Rhineland), acquired the piano part from the London-based journalist and film expert Dr. Hans Feld, until 1933 editor of the daily paper Film-Kurier (“film courier”). I was working at the Düsseldorf institute at that time, heading a project on silent-film music, which had the support of the science minister for North Rhine Westphalia and was concerned with the systematic reconstruction and revival of original performance practice as well as with investigation into their feasibility today. One member of the working group was Günther Becker, Professor of Composition and Live Electronics at the Robert Schumann Institute, who took on the task of providing new instrumentation for the first four acts of the “Berlin” music. The jazz-based fifth act was reworked by the arranger Emil Gerhardt from Cologne.

The scoring for two pianos and percussion duo seemed the most suitable for several reasons. First, the solution for further performances had to be practicable—and also financially feasible. Second, the authentic character of Meisel’s composition had to be preserved; his demand that “all lyrical portamento is to be avoided—rhythm, nothing but rhythm” can be meaningfully met by two keyboard instruments plus percussion. Finally, the reworking should reveal our historical distance from the 1920s and give the cinematic document a contemporary musical feel. Confining the instrumental possibilities to the conceptual heart of the work may mean a reduction in sensual fullness, but it results in greater transparency and intelligibility. This shift in the factors dominating reception seems, after half a century, an appropriate way of encountering tradition anew and of gaining deeper insights into the aesthetic richness of these old films.

Notes copyright © Lothar Prox, reprinted with permission

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