Forgotten Films Of The Big City

Fabian Schmidt digs through Berlin’s cinematic archives to uncover the sights and sites of the pre-war city…

Despite Berlin’s significant self-esteem throughout the 1920s and its bloated ego during the Third Reich, film footage of architecture and life in German movies shot before World War Two is much rarer than one might think. In fact, the closer one gets to the city’s destruction, the thinner coverage seems to become.

There are two main reasons for this, neither especially well known. The first is that most releases aimed at international markets during the Third Reich omitted symbols of National Socialism. The Nazis were hardly bestsellers abroad, so sights of typical everyday life – which would have inevitably included emblems of the Nazi Regime – were avoided, generally limiting the amount the capital could be depicted on film.

Some footage of National Socialist Berlin inevitably did slip through the net, which leads to the second reason for the pre-war city’s relative invisibility: other than in historical documentaries, the display of German National Socialism symbols remains a crime according to German criminal code § 86a StGB. Accordingly, especially in the 1950s and 1960s – when Third Reich flicks re-emerged in great numbers as re-runs on TV, as well as in West and East German cinemas – National Socialist symbols were censored.

Despite these attempts to create a ‘Berlin without swastikas’, some forgotten city sights (and sites) have survived in movies, including many that weren’t seen as icons of National Socialism. Undoubtedly the most original and complete picture of the city that once existed is Leo de Laforgue’s largely forgotten, feature length montage Symphonie Einer Weltstadt (not to be mistaken with the better known Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt [Ruttmann, 1927]).

A still from Leo de Laforgue’s “Symphonie Einer Weltstadt”

Shot between 1938 and 1939, it was prepared for release in 1943 but then banned, so it wasn’t until 1950 that it was furnished with a new voiceover by Friedrich Luft and finally made available. Due to the editing of this post-war release, it’s almost entirely free of symbols of the Third Reich – a full chapter about government architecture around Wilhelmstraße, for instance, is known to have been cut – but footage of the old city centre around the cathedral reveals the immense destruction suffered by its historical architecture.

In fact, the actual face of the city, in terms of its pre-1933 arrangement of modern architecture, may only have survived in these reels, which expose a pre-War, modernist metropolis much more similar to New York, for example, than other European capitals of the time. The movie itself, meanwhile, is a tour de force, a series of staccato images of places we may have heard of, with minimal voiceover commentary.

The reason Symphonie Einer Weltstadt was seemingly forbidden by censors in 1943 was due to its inclusion of places that were by then already destroyed, but snippets were allegedly used – along with newly shot material – in another Berlin film, Wolfgang Liebeneiner’s romance, Großstadtmelodie.This film interweaves a dramatic plot with unusually realistic documentary footage, condensing images of the city into an even livelier portrait fuelled by the longings of a country girl. It stars Hilde Krahl and Karl John, the latter also appearing as the central character in another Berlin film, Volker von Collande’s Zwei In Einer Großen Stadt (1942), in which John stars alongside Monika Burg in a romance that takes place exclusively within Berlin’s better-known quarters.

One memorable passage of Zwei In Einer Großen Stadt occurs at the Strandbad Wannsee, and the movie offers what is probably one of the few opportunities – and without doubt the most delicate – to learn how to work its sophisticated locker system (which these days is sadly no longer in use). The movie also delivers glimpses of, among other places, an intact Kurfürstendamm and the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche.

Another lesser-known but nonetheless very special landmark, one that unfortunately failed to survive the war, lies at the heart of 1941’s crime flick Alarm!, directed by Herbert B. Fredersdorf. Featuring the futuristic architectural centrepiece of Hermannplatz, Neukölln’s old Karstadt-Mall – something reminiscent of Manhattan, or maybe a film set from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – it climaxes with a hunt across the roof of one of the towers, enabling vertiginous perspectives and breath-taking stunts.

The Karstadt mall at Hermannplatz in Neukölln, built in 1929
The Karstadt mall at Hermannplatz in Neukölln, built in 1929. Photographer unknown.

Robert A. Stemmle’s cinematic ‘environment study’, Gleisdreieck (1937), meanwhile, revolves around another specific Berlin location: starting with a long tour of the U-Bahn towards Gleisdreieck station, it includes details of public cigarette lighters, newspaper vending machines and the manual updating of destination signs.

Starring Hansi Finkenzeller, Gustav Fröhlich, Otto Wernicke and, in a supporting role, Wolfgang Staudte, the cast is familiar and Stemmle, known for directing most of the early Heinz Rühmann films, does well composing a homage to the city that not only features original Berlin sites, but also employs details of the city’s facilities – such as the underground telephone system used by the police for the chase at the film’s end – to further its plot.

(Gleisdreieck, incidentally, belongs to a different category than the documentaries and semi-documentaries discussed earlier. Since it was intended for international distribution – namely the US – it seemingly abstained altogether from National Socialist symbols and Nazi references which wouldn’t be appreciated outside Germany, allowing it to premiere in America on 10th June, 1938, and run in at least five other countries. Such ‘modesty’ obviously ran dry at the end of 1941: with the declaration of war by the United States, movie exports effectively ceased).

Directed by Johann Alexander Hübler-Kahla, 1936’s Das Veilchen Vom Potsdamer Platz, a case-study of a poor family living close to Potsdamer Platz, may boast a pedestrian crime plot but it, too, makes the city one of its main characters, with plenty of details of 1930s life of which only traces can be found today. These include the driver of an archaic horse-drawn carriage – whose World War One cavalry horse lives in a backyard stable, right next to the same building’s knacker’s yard – as well as a poor family subletting a room to a stranger, and a teenage daughter working as a flower girl at Potsdamer Platz.

While hardly the peak of 1930s movie making, it’s worth the effort for its immersive course in German micro-architecture of the era, though – despite potentially perfect backgrounds for swastikas afforded by a water ballet competition, a short trip to the horse races at Hoppegarten, and the Wehrmacht platoon that ultimately saves the horse – symbols of National Socialism again remain absent.

A more unusual perspective comes via Helmut Käutner’s neglected masterpiece Unter Den Brücken (1945), which shows the city from the point of view of two inland sailors trying to save money to buy a motor for their barge. Though it should be recognised as having been designed to distract people from the horrors of World War Two’s end, its images – when taken out of context – of Tiergarten’s rowing boats and even the industrialised harbour, whose slow barges travel from places as far away as Rotterdam or Hamburg, pay homage to another, prevailing Berlin mood: its love of waterways and canals.

A still from Helmut Käutner's Unter den Brücken
A still from Helmut Käutner’s Unter den Brücken

Besides sights of the intact city found in such fictional narratives, there are also almost forgotten films that, much like Symphonie Einer Weltstadt, that show the capital in a more artistic documentary style. The last released before the war was Hans Cürlis’ mildly propagandist short film Berlin Bleibt Berlin (1935). Though only a ten-minute fragment of the original is available – largely Nazi-free, of course, making it worthless for any historical-political assessments – its 21 minutes still serve to show the city in all its pre-war beauty.

Particular emphasis is given to late seventeenth century architecture and sculpture, including the famous Eosander Portal (which didn’t survive) and Schlüter’s legendary artwork around the Zeughaus. (These sites which also appear in Symphonie Einer Weltstadt and Andreas Schlüter, a 1942 drama about the eponymous Prussian architect evidently shot shortly before the buildings were destroyed).

A more conventional picture of the inner city can be found in documentaries filmed around the 1936 Olympics, some of which are available on a DVD compilation, So War Berlin. Here we find long shots of Wilhelmstraße’s government buildings – later entirely destroyed during the war, and never rebuilt since they were justly considered fascist and pseudo-neo-classical – and, alongside Pariser Platz (Brandenburger Tor), the Reichstag and the Wilhelminian Unter den Linden, these undoubtedly made a solid, self-assuredly powerful impression on anyone strolling through 1937’s city centre.

Another short, 1936’s Berlin Reichshauptstadt: Ein Farbiges Städtebild, provides a vivid picture of the Third Reich’s capital, with Berlin shown in all its Nazi ‘chic’, with red and white swastika flags flying far and wide. In contrast to city pictures from only a few years earlier, it illustrates the quite lengthy coexistence of modern and fascist Berlin.

Albert Baumeister’s Sommersonntag In Berlin (1942) is another example of the so-called Kulturfilm. Unquestionably the last filmed document of an intact, modern Berlin, it was shot in late summer only a few weeks before the first of the larger allied bombing raids in November 1942. Despite being blatant Nazi propaganda, it’s comparable – in terms of style and perspective – to other efforts mentioned here, except it focuses on the west, especially the Olympic buildings, the Kurfürstendamm and Strandbad Wannsee. (In passing, it’s worth noting the reoccurring references to summers and Sundays in these Berlin films, though perhaps more surprising are the commentator’s regular references to the war itself).

Another must-see is Franz Fiedler’s nostalgic short, Berlin, Wie Es War, shot and edited in 1934, but only released in the 1950s. In this, a young tourist and her Border Collie are introduced to Berlin by an elderly carriage driver, who, with particular focus on the old and ancient parts of the city, shows her all kinds of special spots, explaining their significance for real Berliners while somewhat excessively exploiting the city’s singular sense of humour.

Fiedler’s Kleiner Bummel Durch Berlin (1932) works along similar lines, providing an amusing introduction to Berlin’s public sculptures – and what Berliners say about them – while another insight, this time into Berlin’s countryside weekends, can be found in Eugen Schüftan’s short, Ins Blaue Hinein (1929). Its occasionally tedious dialogue may spoil it a little – most likely one of Germany’s first talkies, it was shot silently and dubbed later on – but the movie without question delivers detailed impressions of 1920s Berlin, including weekend life in the typical garden allotments of the city’s suburbs and a taste of 1929’s bankruptcy.

Schüftan was clearly inspired by Robert Siodmak’s Menschen Am Sonntag, another unique insight into Berlin city life upon which Schüftan had worked as a cinematographer. Co-directed by Edgar Ulmer, and with a script by Billy Wilder, it’s among the few Berlin films to have received a wider distribution, though it was in actual fact not released until 1930, some time after Schüftan’s short. Starring non-professional actors, this fascinating, highly entertaining experiment oscillates between reportage and feature film, not unlike today’s reality TV formats, only it’s entirely shot and edited in the deadly serious fashion of a movie.

By depicting typical young people’s lives – from new gadgets like gramophones and telephones (constantly used for dating and checking on pals) to jobs (from modelling to record shop sales assistant), as well as a rather leisurely attitude towards premarital sex – it stands in contrast to the more nostalgic, old fashioned city employed as its canvas, offering a different urban feeling to films shot only some eight years later. Siodmak presumably preferred to present modern people in a traditional city, rather than the other way round, and this also enables a better insight into late 1920s Berlin micro-fashion, from casual wear to bathing suits, than more architecture-oriented films, which were often shot using wider angles.

One film that provoked particular discussion upon its release was Kuhle Wampe Oder: Wem Gehört Die Welt, a distinctive, almost impressionistic piece of social-critical drama, with a script by Berthold Brecht and a score composed by Hanns Eisler, about a working class family in Berlin in 1932. One of the last 1930s, left wing German productions, it focuses on Annie Bönike (Hertha Thiele), a working class teenager who gets pregnant by the wrong guy and whose brother, frustrated by long-term unemployment, commits suicide.

With the family forced to move to a campsite outside the city, the film shines a light on a contradiction that’s equally significant for Berlin itself: life on the periphery symbolises leisure and exclusivity as much as marginalisation and exclusion. This bold picture of the city (and its facilities) may still exude that special Berlin feeling, but its main focus is a political one that exhibits much more social criticism than any of the other aforementioned flicks.

Definitely worth consideration, too, are Markt In Berlin (Basse, 1929), Stadt Der Millionen (Trotz, 1925), and Ruttmann’s celebrated Symphonie Einer Weltstadt, which allow perspectives on late 1920s Berlin architecture and the city’s day-to-day life. Markt In Berlin’s 14 minutes show the weekly grocery market at Wittenbergplatz in overall top shots and close detail – starting at sunrise with the building of its stands, and then recording the busy city life surrounding them.

But Adolf Trotz’ astonishing footage for Stadt Der Millionen is especially impressive. This largely unknown film confidently shows an already modern, industrialised city of millions, and Trotz furnishes it with sedate montages of re-enacted historical scenes (and even odd comic strips) featuring the likes of Lessing and Mendelssohn, or Friedrich The Great strolling with his Italian greyhounds through the parks of Sanssouci.

Of these many, all-encompassing Berlin documentaries, Stadt der Millionen allows arguably the most complete overview of the different spheres and currents of Berlin’s social life. For today’s audience in search of the city’s older layers, furthermore, the movie is particularly interesting since it shows how, in 1925, the capital was already a thoroughly modern interpretation of a much older architectural concept.

Though amateur footage also gives valuable insight into Berlin’s appearance before the war, Berlin: Die Sinfonie Der Großstadt – released in 1927 by Walter Ruttmann – represents, alongside Menschen Am Sonntag, without doubt the most sophisticated piece of artistic Berlin cinematography. A full day in five acts, it starts with deserted streets at sunrise and ends with shots of nightlife attractions, its score precisely composed and performed in synch with the pace of the editing and the rhythm of the filmed events.

Ruttmann not only delivers a perfect montage that refers to the geometrical arrangements of facades and architecture, but, in addition, exploits his intuition for photographic social reportage, with each scene crying out for a freeze frame. The relentless pace of both its editing and the city’s traffic, however, means it’s already moved on.

Of course, such exploration of the capital’s immediate pre-War cinematic representation leads those interested in Berlin towards an intriguing paradox. The post-War exclusion of National Socialist symbols from films was originally intended to de-historicise – or de-contextualise – them in order to prevent the promotion of a regime that had, fortunately, been overcome.

But such censorship has instead provided a vision of a stunning, modern, but conspicuously Nazi-free city. This hybrid construction of 1930s cultural export propaganda and a post-war fear of awakening bad spirits (through the display of their emblems) has consequently ensured the existence – if only in forgotten films and dreams – of a modernist Berlin devoid of swastikas.


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