This video essay considers the city of Berlin as an audio-visual archive and a cultural, symbolic, and historical palimpsest. It incorporates material from canonical Berlin films, such as Symphony of a Great City (Ruttmann, 1927), Germany, Year Zero (Rossellini, 1949) and Wings of Desire (Wenders, 1987), as well as the slightly lesser known works Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (Godard, 1991)—in many ways a response to Rossellini’s film—and Berlin Babylon (Siegert, 2001), which draws on archival footage from the immediate post-World-War-II era. All of them deal with Berlin as a specific, historically contextualized architectural site of trauma, ruins, and transformation. The diversity of genres and points of entry into a geographically consistent, yet historically and politically impermanent setting lends itself to the specific and affective modes of juxtaposition, confrontation and linkage that videographic scholarship enables.
Considering Derrida’s claim that “there is no archive without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority,” I employ videographic scholarship to reflect upon the city’s archival exteriority. Using films of and about Berlin across the 20th century, this video essay draws upon cinematic history in relation to its historiographic impulses, its diverse modes of historical representation, as well as its own representability in videographic scholarship, which further fragmentizes, re-contextualizes and re–frames these histories. Following Derrida, archives both collect objects for preservation, but also remove them from their present circulation. In making Berlin Moves, I discovered frame by frame how the video essay as a digital reproduction format grants new and different accesses to audio-visual histories, including historical found footage and its indexical traces of ruins, decay and reconstruction. By re-adapting and intertwining cultural and historical fragments and texts across different forms of art and criticism, including Walter Benjamin’s writings on urban environments and histories (some of which are specific to Berlin), I also played with videographic scholarship’s potential to provoke connections between audio-visual material and literary sources.
Berlin Moves is divided into three episodes, each of which follows a different thematic and/or aesthetic trajectory. In the first two episodes I use split-screen juxtapositions (and on-screen text in the second episode), edited to the rhythm of music pieces from the films (Einstürzende Neubauten’s score for Berlin Babylon and Jürken Knieper’s music for Wings of Desire, respectively) as well as voice-over narration in English and German (at times purposefully superimposed and distorted to the point of incomprehension). The first episode presents material depicting children and the child’s gaze on a city of ruins and political change, whereas the second focuses on the interplaying of labor, entertainment, industry and (architectural) reconstruction. The third episode superimposes images loosely associated with old age and remembrance, and emphasizes the ways in which images and narratives are inscribed into each other and into the fabric of the city. In that episode, I let music pieces from two of the films (again by Einstürzende Neubauten and Jürgen Knieper) play out simultaneously to mirror the literally and figuratively consonant and dissonant elements of this inscriptive layering process.
Throughout the project I have been especially interested in the ways in which the moving image can reframe, oppose and unite multiple temporal planes and seemingly distinct historic moments—a core notion of cinema’s ontology. The use of editing software has allowed me to play with these temporal complexities in an especially tactile and felt manner, even beyond the general nature of digital video, which generally complicates traditional understandings of the illusion of time through movement as we know it from analog cinema. Some of the films I interweave here already incorporate found footage in and of themselves, and others include overt references to or quotes of pre-existing cultural and literary artifacts. I look at my own video essay and at the films and texts from which it takes its material as archives-in-flux—they derive from and draw onto each other and are culture-historically interwoven in their making and retrospective understanding.
Berlin Moves therefore is no attempt at any comprehensive representation of Berlin’s history in the 20th century, nor does it follow complete interpretations or arguments about any single film or text that I use. Rather, this video essay seeks ambiguities—in the films and texts themselves and in the affective and intellectual responses it may provoke to them and to itself. My main interest is directed at the enunciative challenges and incoherent aspects posed by lived and mediated trauma, by memory, history and the discursive legacies that have informed the German term Vergangenheitsbewältigung. I treat my sources as audio-visual and textual, as well as symbolic and indexical (now digitized) fragments which share Berlin as a common referent. In the reception of their treatments in this video essay, the individual and collective memories and histories that inform the source materials may get further re-contextualized in light of the viewer’s own associations with Berlin, its history and/or any of the films and texts with which I engage.
- Evelyn Kreutzer