CI am accused of having mentioned —I have been here for almost 18 years and I cannot remember everything — the fascination that ancient, real images of cities produce in me. However I had not seen until now, on DVD, a famous 1927 film, Berlin, the symphony of the big city, held for one of the most influential documentaries in history. It is divided into five “acts”, and begins at 5 in the morning, when the streets are still empty and a train is approaching the capital of Germany. The other acts cover a fictitious day, going through all its hours until the moment of recollection. The day is fictitious because the director, Walter Ruttmann, and his team, the filming took a whole year, and they often used hidden cameras in vans, buses, trams and even suitcases, to capture as naturally and freely as possible the course of the city. It is also fictitious because in a single day not so many or so varied scenes are visible as they are shown to us, not even in a gigantic city. The film has many merits, and it is not the least that it ever recreates in the most beautiful or suggestive shots, nor does it look hard for them: it gives the impression that the cameras “find them” and the director chooses them for editing, but without overdoing it, and it makes them last for a short time: awnings shaken by the wind, skirts swaying in the breeze, not much more. The sharp images are — I find them — fascinating, but they do not gloat in aestheticism, nor in spurious elements. The scenes of poor people are brief, those of rich people too, those of normal people of course. No easy parallels are established and no demagogic contrast is sought. One of its virtues is that it is not a moralistic documentary, neither “with a message” nor “denouncing”. It simply shows the different facets of Berlin life in 1927.
In 1927 my friend Juan Benet was born, and also my classmates from the Academy Gregorio Salvador, Antonio Fernández de Alba and Emilio Lledó, who happily enjoy apparent good health. It seems amazing to me, what do they want, able to seewhat I see, the passing of everyday life 93 years ago. I see the first to appear on the streets, a baker, a man with a dog, when there is hardly any light. At 8 o’clock the workers enter the factories and the blinds of the shops begin to rise, allowing us the vision of their varied windows. Also house shutters, the children on the way to school, and little by little the city is populating. We see the manufacturing of light bulbs and bottles, the long two-car trams and double-decker buses, the many cars – already – mixed with the horse-drawn carts, which have eaten their feed before. Traffic is considerable, and some vehicles juggle to avoid colliding with each other, including trams. People enter offices, go shopping, a young woman walks doubtfully around a corner, with an eternal gait that we have seen at any time. It is spring and the terraces fill up, hundreds of people go to the station and take trains, most with their newspapers spread out for the journey. I see a man on crutches and one leg go by, advancing with surprising speed — perhaps he lost it years before, in the War of 1914-18. At the end of that war came the terrible flu of 1918-20, remembered today after long oblivion: it is comforting to see that there is no trace of it in 1927, nor any anticipation of the horror that would come, with Hitler, not too much later. It is a free and happy city, like the ones from the interwar period, with no other worries than the usual ones. People eat lunch and regain strength, rest for a while and resume their activity, and in the evening they go to variety shows, concerts, theaters and cinemas, to play sports, to walk, to dance. The streets are always lively. We witness an altercation between two individuals, and I run around him, until a guard with Bismarckian mustaches intervenes and brings peace. There is a very young girl struggling with some steps where she wants to climb a stroller, perhaps with a doll inside.
That mere contemplation of normality is moving. For a second I couldn’t help but think that all those who appear there, with the exception of a baby, will surely be dead. But you put your thought away immediately, because you see them very alive and active, content or enjoying themselves. Too bad that cinema was not invented earlier. If there were equivalent images of French life in Napoleon’s time, let alone Renaissance Italy or medieval Spain, I would not stop lookingthe realof those times with my own eyes, witnessing what was ephemeral and the documentary would have preserved until today. Observing the people of that time, of whom we only have paintings and stories. The former lack movement, the latter lack image and space, no matter how well counted and described. I am amazed to see some boyfriends who are going to get married, a horse fallen on the asphalt that its owner manages to revive and lift, the telephone operators and typists, the newspapers coming out of their machines, brand new, at full speed, the passers-by of stroll or busy, the dancers happy when night falls. In 1927 everything, just as it was.