When photography was first brought into use, it was largely thought as an objective device of reproducing reality. This belief, however, has soon been challenged by the emerging realization of how powerful camera manipulation could be. In Benjamin’s article on mechanical reproduction, he discusses the process as a “shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind” (Benjamin, 228). The decline of aura that follows this reproducibility is not being viewed negatively but rather, in the light that it discloses more possibilities for what art can do. This paper will work closely with Benjamin’s arguments on art and its transformation with the new medium, as well as how these arguments are exemplified through stylistics and thematic elements in the film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. As the aesthetic attitude shifts with the coming of photography and film; the new medium brings about a new mode of perception that reduces the distance between art and the mass audience, introducing the mass to a new way of art appreciation and participation.
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The mode of art perception has quickly changed when history is rewritten with the coming of photography and film. As Benjamin puts it, human perception is “determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances” and “changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence” (Benjamin, 228). The fact that technology can be used to perform slow motion and close-up on any part of the film provides the audience with new possibilities of experiencing reality. The camera serves as a subjective agency that contributes to a much more deepened and expanded perception, including the unconscious optics that would be left unseen to the naked eye. The alteration of camera angles, the depth of focus, extensions and accelerations of time, and montage editing are all ways that the camera intervenes with reality and one’s perception of it. In the film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Ruttman employs a series of montage sequences, canted camera angles and dissolves that as a whole draw much attention to the techniques so that the medium becomes quite an obvious element of the film. The film’s ability to strike viewers with flowing images one after another differs from previous art forms in which it encourages the audience to absorb, rather than being absorbed by the work. In a sequence at the end of Act II, cuts of people answering phones and manic animals (squeaking monkeys and dogs in a fight) are linked together, giving the sequence one more level of meaning. Here, the individual images are not important anymore, but the mode of how these images are perceived as a whole is worth more discussion instead. The montage conveys an overarching message that bridges between individual pieces of the city, creating a sense of tension that is passed on to the audience with a series of emotional effects. Cinematic editing, such as the use of montage, “encourages a transitory mode of perception” (Deranty, ) which is adjusted to constantly changing images instead of staying focused on one stable image.
As the mode of perception changes gradually, the cult value of art is also replaced by the exhibition value of art that brings the distance between art and the audience much closer than ever. Through mechanical reproduction and the “desire of contemporary masses to bring things closer spatially and humanly” (Benjamin, 229), art has become much more approachable to the mass audience. The exhibition value has not only renewed the distance between art and the audience, but also the relationship between the audience and reality. As Benjamin points out, the “adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality” (Benjamin, 229) also takes place gradually but inevitably due to the closer distance. This universal democratization of art accessibility and reproduction is evident in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City in which the city’s architecture, factories, streets, and other public spaces are exploited to present the urban environment of the city. Landmark buildings, famous sculptures, and machines are no longer distant objects for those who do not have access in real life. Rather, the images of them are readily available on-screen in the form of moving pictures that one can watch from a different setting at the spectator’s convenience. Central to the exhibition value, the objects in the film are filmed to be seen and taken out of their original time and place so that they can be redistributed to a wider range of audience.
With mechanical reproduction that has brought the mass audience much closer to artworks, a new way of art participation also emerges with it. Benjamin describes this new mode of participation as a form of productive distraction and contrasts it with the contemplative concentration that is demanded by traditional forms of art (Benjamin, 237). In the article written by Deranty, the word “haptic tactility” is used for this idea of participation through distraction. Deranty builds on the idea of tactile participation, explaining it as a kind of participation that is “non-attentive, akin to habitual, haptic inhabiting of the place or the event” which serves as an “assurance of film’s revolutionary power” (Deranty, 114). This revolutionary power trains the mass into forming habits which not only alters their perception of art but also has the potential to alter the aesthetic structure. In the opening sequence of Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, the audience’s attention is directed towards the train that is on its way to Berlin. The cut here is done in a way that alternates between the train and the side views of the swiftly passing telegraph poles. One image of the train is quickly followed by another from a slightly different angle or point of view, but the motion perpetuates each scene and never stops. The way that this sequence is cut contributes to a state of flow not only stylistically in this one sequence, but also thematically throughout much of the film. Whether it is the train, the vehicles in the streets, or pedestrian, there is almost always something in motion. Even when the camera is being placed in a stationary position, the elements of the city still appear fluid within each scene. While it seems that the film incorporates a documentary style with nonprofessional actors and simple everyday events, one can still see that the movements extend across shots and are carefully choreographed to produce and effect. The shots work together, creating a certain tension and anticipation in the audience. In a sense, the audience is immersed in a constant movement within the changing scenes, absorbing sensory inputs while being distracted and continuously carried away by the next image instead of being able to concentrate on one single image.
While the new medium of art brings about a new mode of perception that reduces the distance between art and the mass audience, a shift in aesthetic attitude has also taken place as the masses adjust to a new way of art appreciation and participation. Photography and film have gradually altered people’s mode of perception and how they experience art. With this adaption to the new mode of perception, a movement from the cult value towards exhibition value of art has also taken place, bringing the distance between art and the audience closer than ever. Following new possibilities disclosed by the power of mechanical reproduction, a new way of art participation also emerges with it, in which the audience engage in a state of productive distraction rather than passive concentration. This paper has illustrated how Benjamin’s ideas can be applied and exemplified through the film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, which signifies that his analytical structures may also be reflective in a broader scope. Incorporating a documentary style of filming that brings the work closer to the audience, the film uses cinematic manipulation to impact the spectators in a way that demands both the transitory mode of perception and tactile participation in return.