As rhythmic meditations on urban spaces that shied away from character and narrative, city films of the 1920s and 1930s blended modernism, documentary, everyday life, and abstraction. The filmmakers took their cameras into the streets, capturing architecture, people, and industrial tempos, and then they pieced together their footage using graphic and thematic modes of organization.
The Soviet film, Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) and the German film, Berlin: Symphony of a City (Walter Ruttman, 1927), are the most well-known examples of the city film genre. However, the city film also occupies a special place in U.S. experimental film culture of the early 20th century.
This dispersed and underappreciated group of filmmakers drew inspiration from the amateur cinema movement – which boomed in the late 1920s and into the 1930s, thanks in part to Kodak’s introduction of 16mm in 1923 – and from Soviet montage, particularly the writings and films of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin. Many experimental filmmakers from this period went on to become involved with groups like the Workers Film and Photo League or Nykino, leftist collectives that produced documentaries on topics like the Sacco and Vanzetti trial or agricultural practices that led to the Dust Bowl.
Below, I highlight 3 city films that represent the variety of approaches to cinema taken by these early filmmakers: Manhatta (Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, 1921), Autumn Fire (Herman G. Weinberg, 1931), and Footnote to Fact (Lewis Jacobs, 1933).
Modernism: Manhatta (Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, 1921)
Manhatta is widely considered to be the first U.S. avant-garde film, and it predates Berlin: Symphony of a City and Man with a Movie Camera by several years.
Created by two modernist artists, known for striking photos or paintings of urban architecture (Strand was a protégé of Alfred Stieglitz), Manhatta was considered a “scenic” when it initially screened for a week at New York’s Rialto Theatre. As an experiment by artists toying with a new medium, it lacks the dense montage or camera effects that appear in many of its successors. But Strand and Sheeler bring their eye for geometry to Manhatta’s cinematographic style, making it stand out from the soft style that dominated commercial filmmaking of the period.
Manhatta’s graphic images of the New York skyline imbue it with a sensibility that makes it a classic of modernist, non-narrative filmmaking.
Ameteurism and Montage: Autumn Fire (Herman G. Weinberg, 1931)
Herman G. Weinberg was a prominent figure in the “little cinema” and the amateur cinema movements. As managing director of the Baltimore Little Theatre, Weinberg had the opportunity to see a range of European avant-garde and art films, from the Soviets to German Expressionists to French Dadaists and Surrealists. He also wrote for film publications like Amateur Movie Makers and Close Up.
Heavily influenced by Soviet filmmakers like Pudovkin, Weinberg’s 1931 film, Autumn Fire, is heavily montaged, but also one of the more personal examples of the city film genre. Film historian Jan-Christopher Horak writes, “According to Weinberg, [Autumn Fire] is a romance sentimentale, made not for public exhibition, but as a means of courting a woman he then married.”
Autumn Fire is an excellent example of where Soviet montage met amateur filmmaking culture in the 1930s.
Social Commentary: Footnote to Fact (Lewis Jacobs, 1933)
Lewis Jacobs got his start in filmmaking and criticism in the 1920s as a member of an amateur cinema club, the Cinema Crafters of Philadelphia. He quickly became involved with radical film movements of the 1930s, co-founding the leftist film magazine Experimental Cinema in 1930 and joining the Workers Film and Photo League in 1931. Jacobs made relatively few films, but was a prolific film critic, writing several books on cinema.
Jacobs originally intended Footnote to Fact to be the first in a multi-part documentary about the Great Depression, but this was the only part completed.
The social commentary in this film is direct. Instead of highlighting the beauty of architecture and urban rhythms, Jacobs turns his camera on struggling, working class citizens, and we can easily perceive Soviet influence, both through the form of the montage and in the ideology of the film.
The IU Cinema is screening one of the most renowned city films, Berlin: Symphony of a City (Walter Ruttman, 1927), on Sunday, October 8 at 3 pm as part of the President’s Choice series. The film will be presented in 16mm and will have live piano accompaniment by Craig Davis.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.