Berlin Moves

Creator's Statement

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

Travelling through the ages, witnessing what humans think and feel, storing the past and making it visible in the present: the angel figures in Wim Wender’s audio-visual poem Wings of Desire (1987) have often been read as allegories of cinema and its ability to store time. This concern with the cinema as archive, and how it may be explored by means of vision and sound, also provides the inner logic of Evelyn Kreutzer’s video essay “Berlin Moves”. In fact, large parts of the video essay feel like a homage to Wender’s film, with its fluid cinematography, dreamy music and, not least, the mixture of introspection and abstraction created by its voice-overs.

Kreutzer expands the poetics of Wings of Desire to include other films about Berlin, films that stem from different periods (inter-war to post-Wall) and covers a range of sometimes hybrid genres (fiction, documentary, essay, experimental). Initially placed side by side by means of a split screen, the films are gradually brought to interact, creating an audio-visual layering, suggesting rhythm, sometimes achieving the fluidity of a dance, sometimes punctuated by freeze frames. And while those depicted in the films chosen initially exist in separate parts of the screen, they are increasingly set in relation to each other as well, resulting in a non-verbal dialogue between Berlin characters across time. Berlin Moves writes a non-chronological history of the city through film.

The video essay’s first part revolves around childhood in a city scarred by war and division. One feels reminded of Peter Handke’s “Song of Childhood” from Wings of Desire, a poem about a child’s experience of being at one with the world. However, the authentic, redeeming quality which Handke attributes to childhood is complicated by Berlin Moves. The video essay reminds us that Berlin also is the city of Edmund, the protagonist of Robert Rossellini’s post-war drama Germany, Year Zero (1948). Enacting the sacrifice of the weak propagated by Nazism, Edmund poisons his sick father – a loss of innocence so total, so devastating that it leads to Edmund’s suicide. In Kreutzer’s montage, Berlin also features as a setting for the breakdown of morality.

Berlin as “a city condemned forever to becoming and never being” (Karl Scheffler) is synonymous with (re-)construction. The video essay’s second part dissects the transformation of the urban through on-screen movement and editing patterns reminiscent of a city symphony. Images from Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927) play a crucial part. They collide with shots from Berlin Babylon (2001), Hubertus Siegert’s long-term observation of the frenzy with which the “New Berlin” was erected during the 1990s. Traffic is moved across as well as mirrored between the two parts of the split screen. The frame becomes obsessed with detail, dividing bodies into segments, arranging them into ornaments. At the end of this day in the life of a city, the euphoria of modernisation is lost: Kreuzter leaves us with sped-up subjective camera imagery of a dark, abandoned urban labyrinth.

Switching to a single screen, the third part of Berlin Moves uses extremely slow dissolves to temporarily superimpose people and places. Images of childhood mix with those of old age, sites of history blend into modern cityscapes. At its conclusion, the video essay insists on the impossibility of retrieving the forgotten. As the scepticism with memory grows, so does the overlaying of images and sounds, as if to suggest a chaos of events never to be recuperated. Here as throughout, quotations from Walter Benjamin’s “Berlin childhood around 1900” add yet another layer to the palimpsest of Berlin as film-city-text. Similarly to Benjamin’s autobiographical work, Kreutzer’s video essay looks backwards, drawn and distanced at the same time by what it sees. Berlin Moves is at its strongest where it manages to merge vastly different films into an evolving audio-visual collage. Crucially, that collage never seeks to conceal the origins of its parts. Instead, the segments of Berlin Moves always remain recognisable, moveable, as if waiting to be organised again, into a new kind of city-film-text.

As Chiara Grizzaffi argues in previous issues of [in]Transition, encouraging a culture that fosters a hybrid, polyphonic response to the voice over conventions of the video lecture is essential if the videographic mode of inquiry promoted by this journal is to resist critical ossification. In this regard, Kreutzer’s Berlin Moves, with its multi-layered, multi-lingual soundtrack of Godardian whispered aphorisms, mesmeric industrial rhythms and eldritch music, can be interpreted as a rejoinder to the male, Anglophone drone that characterises much film criticism. 

However, there is a disparity between the form of this desktop phantasmagoria and its proposed critical function. It is difficult to equate the beguiling effect of its skilfully assembled fades and dissolves with the acts of intellectual provocation that Kreutzer suggests in her supporting statement. This incongruity is also exhibited in the work itself with the critical programme of awakening [Erwachen] advanced in Walter Benjamin’s Einbahnstraße (1928) (one of the video’s main text references) jarring with the work’s otherwise somnambulistic character. In general, the relationship between Kreutzer’s video and Benjamin’s work is a problematic one -– unlike her recourse to Derrida and Mulvey that more successfully support Berlin Moves’ intentions as outlined in her statement. For example, refashioning sections of Benjamin’s text Kaiserpanorama in relation to the archive footage of the bomb smashed streets of Berlin dissipates (through their mutual codification as caption/image) rather than maintains their critical potency (as contingent elements of the ‘archive-in-flux’). By re-contextualising (de-contextualizing) them to accompany Knieper’s music gives the sequence an unearthly quality that nullifies the critical immediacy of Benjamin’s text and renders the lived horror of Berlin’s wreckage into a symbolic landscape. 

In section two, the kinetic visual assemblage of car, trams, etc., and the persistent inclusion of scenes involving mobile camera set ups (consciously or not) invites the analogy between the viewer of Kreutzer’s video and the distracted stare of the train passengers that she dwells upon in the final part. The movement of Berlin Moves distances us from the images it presents on screen in a way that inhibits critical access to them. In Berliner Chronik (1932), Benjamin writes, ‘memory [Gedächtnis] is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre [Schauplatz]’. Here Schauplatz suggests not just the space that facilitates the presentation of a particular set of actors, actions and events but also the conditions that establish the location from which this can be seen. Through memory, states Benjamin, we start to understand ‘the space of history’ [Geschichtsraum] as something we can enter (or exit). As Karen E. Till argues in her analysis of the ‘controversial politics of memory in Berlin’, for Benjamin, memory ‘is not layered time situated in a landscape. Rather, memory is the self-reflexive act of contextualizing and continuously digging for the past through place’.  However, as W. G. Sebald has argued, such acts of excavation were anomalous in post-war Germany where the motivation was to avoid disturbing ‘the corpses built into the foundations of the state’. 

In his 1928 review of Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt, Siegfried Kracauer (a friend of Benjamin’s and a substantial influence on his thinking about film) criticises the director, Walter Ruttman, for failing to engage with the ‘reality’ of Berlin:

"Instead of penetrating its enormous object in a way that would betray a true understanding of its social, economic, and political structure, and instead of observing it with human concern or even tackling it from a particular vantage point in order to resolutely take it apart, Ruttman leaves the thousands of details unconnected, one next to the other, inserting at most some arbitrarily conceived transitions that are meaningless. At best, the film is based on the idea that Berlin is the city of speed and of work -- a formal idea that in no way leads to any content".

Though Kracauer’s criticism of Ruttman doesn’t entirely apply to Kreutzer’s work, his emphasis on critical perspective relating to content is certainly transposable in this incidence. For example, there is no indication that Kreutzer’s adoption of a split screen format is reference to the stereoscopic slides that Benjamin alludes to in his text, but the opportunity to use the double images of Einbahnstraße as a framework to critically juxtapose the city of Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927) and Rossellini’s Germania anno zero (1948) is a missed opportunity (especially considering Kreutzer’s obvious aesthetic acumen) to align form, content and function more coherently, particularly in relation to “the city’s archival exteriority”.