As I am living in Berlin and working in docs, I wanted to write something about one of the original Berlin documentaries. Translated variously as “symphony of a metropolis” (usually referring to the 2002 remake) or simply “symphony of a great city”, I initially watched part of this film with no music. There being no narrative in any case, and the intention being to watch it accompanied by a live orchestra, it is truly a film belonging to another era. On finding a version with an accompanying soundtrack, the effect was eerie, at times surprisingly emotive, and overall a meditative experience.
Sinfonie einer Großstadt might not immediately or ordinarily be classed as a documentary film, but for my purposes it is wholly so: a film showing the everyday life of people of an ethnographic group and life in a particular area of the world is relevant and interesting for me.
As I have previously discussed on this blog, I am a huge fan of films with no continuous narrator. As far as I’m aware, this is more characteristic of a European-style documentary than a British one (my feeling being that we are tending towards formats and series), or at least feature-length documentaries. One Day in the Life of a Rice Farmer, one of my favourite films of all time, uses neither music nor words, instead relying on the environment in which the film was recorded to set the scene and create atmosphere (which it succeeds wonderfully in doing).
Music without words as part of a documentary film can change an ordinary scene into something quite extraordinary; for example, the remake of Sinfonie opens at a gathering at the Brandenburger Tor. Children playing with fireworks and men and women gathering round tables drinking beer. The night is just beginning, yet it is hard to fathom why the music is so sinister. The music tells a story all of its own and leaves what might otherwise be a merely factual observational film open to our own interpretation.