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Documentation Centre / Cycles

The Architecture of the Metropolis in film (1918-1939)

The Architecture of the Metropolis in film (1918-1939)

In the interwar period (1918-1939), when cinema began to be rolled out, most artists and architects linked to the figurative avant-garde movements of the 20th century, used cinema as an element of experimentation and as a means of formulating proposals posed with a vision of what the future city could be.

The most paradigmatic example is the Metropolis of To-morrow (1929), by the American architect Hugh Ferris, with the same influence in the science fiction world in the years immediately after its release as Just Imagine (1930) by David Butler and Things to Come (1936) by William Cameron Menzies, or most recently, for example, the design of Batman's city, Gotham City, or the New York of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
Other important architects, such as the French architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, or the German architect Hans Poelzig, had a clear impact on film set construction. In the first case, around twenty of them, in the cube-futuristic design of L'Inhumaine, a film by Marcel L'Herbier, or lending some of his works, the Villa Noailles in Hyères (1928), headquarters of the Centre d'art et d'architecture, as a film set for the surrealist film by Man Ray, Le mystère du château de dé (1929). In the second, according to their designs, they fully built a medieval Gothic city, the Jewish ghetto from Prague, for Der Golem (1920), an expressionist film by Paul Wegener.
However, beyond the dedication of architects to cinematographic tasks, names whose list would constitute an endless payroll, the contemporary metropolis and its architecture have been described by cinema as few art forms have achieved. It is therefore essential to know films referred to as cross-section, i.e., the montage of syncopated images, linked by the rhythm of the pulsations of the big city, by the activity of its inhabitants, their moments of work, leisure or rest, by the speed and dynamism of their machines, trains, cars and trams, by the tensions and reveries that the new architecture of the modern metropolis promotes.
There are many films that provide us with this vision. At the head of all of them would be Berlin, die Symphonie der Grozstadt (Berlin, the symphony of the big city, 1927) by Walter Ruttmann, filmmaker and architect, who combines the documentary, experimental and narrative character to show us, in chronological order, daily life throughout twenty-four hours of the day of a city, Berlin, with shots taken over a year of filming, sometimes with hidden cameras.
Before Berlin, die Symphonie der Grozstadt, photographer and filmmaker Paul Strand, along with painter Charles Sheeler, had filmed images of New York, taken from the reality of Manhattan, its port, its loading and unloading docks, and the streets of the Big Apple. Manhatta (1921), a film conceived as a musical poem, is based on the poem by Walt Whitman, Mannahatta, a name literally written in that way by the great American poet. The lettering, with the verses of the poem, preside over the twelve sequences that compose the film, in a succession of twelve moments in the life of the city, set between dawn and sunset. The skyscrapers of New York are shown with agile camera movements, as well as the movement of the crowd in streets navigated by cars and the elevated train. Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler were linked to the circle of the 291 gallery, founded by Alfred Steglitz, a promoter of the cubist and futurist avant-gardes in the city of skyscrapers.          
A Bronx Morning (1931) is a film by Jay Leyda that introduces the viewer to the New York Bronx, showing it as a general panorama from a train, through two dizzying travelling scenes, one at the start and one at the end. In between, through the montage, we can see views of this district, its character and atmosphere, with the daily activities of neighbours, adults and children, and the activity that takes place in local businesses. The film is indebted to the formal findings expressed by Walter Ruttmann in Berlin, die Symphonie der Grozstadt.
Rien que les heures (1926), by the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti, seems to have served as a source of inspiration for Walter Ruttmann for his film about Berlin. It deals with life in Paris, the city in motion and at rest, taking the main theme of an old drunk wandering through the streets of the French metropolis. Nothing but the hours, which would be the literal translation of the title, strongly influenced the artistic avant-garde movements at the time, also attracting the attention of Luis Buñuel, which led to his projection at the Residencia de Estudiantes. According to the Gaceta Literaria, in edition no. 2 of 1927, in Rien que les heures, "visual" music, the two rhythms of cinema are responsible for finding the necessary link between the images.
Montparnasse (1929), by Eugène Deslaw, constitutes an overview of the Parisian district of Montparnasse, inhabited by avant-garde artists, such as Luis Buñuel or the Italian futurist Marinetti, whose artistic activity is shown. Focusing on the construction of early 20th century Paris, more interesting is Au Bonheur des Dames (1929), by Julien Duvivier. As a film with a fictional plot, it is an adaptation of the novel by Émile Zola, which features Denise, a young orphan from the provinces who arrives in Paris to live with her uncle Baudu, the owner of a haberdashery that is declining due to the expansion plans of the department stores emerging in the big city, in this case the Galeries Lafayette, where Denise will be hired. It is precisely the architecture of this building that is shown in all its details, with its spaces, movements and attitudes of flâneurs, sellers and customers.
Highlighted due to it being considered for decades by surveys conducted among countless critics as one of the ten most important films in the History of Cinema, The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), by Dziga Vertov, is a film based on his kino-eye theory, later complemented by the film-truth theory. The camera films images of St Petersburg, and other Russian cities, in the years immediately following the Soviet Revolution of 1917. In 1919, Dziga Vertov, together with other filmmakers, including his wife Elizaveta Svilova, an assistant for the montage, created the Kinoks group, which would subscribe to numerous manifestos of the constructivist avant-garde. The Man with a Movie Camera constitutes pure cinema, supported by the reality captured by the camera. A reality that achieves its meaning through the montage.



This whole set of resources offers us a much more complex and exhaustive overview.


Ester Roldan. Mallet-Stevens: Architecture, cinema and modernity.

Between 1920 and 1928, the French architect and designer Robert Mallet-Stevens made numerous sets for cinema and also published several articles on this subject.
See the article on the AF Blog