Friday, August 7, 2009

A city symphony from São Paulo

still from site Tampere Short Film Festival 2006

The German Film Museum of Frankfurt screened a rarely shown Brazilian ´city symphony´, namely Rodolpho Rex Lustig´s and Adalberto Kemeny´s São Paulo, Sinfonia da Metrópole (1929, link), because only recently restored by the Fundação Cinemateca Brasileira. The screening was part of a larger program on city symphonies (a.o. also one about Tokyo) curated by a PhD-candidate working on this genre, Chris Dähne.

São Paulo, Sinfonia da Metrópole was made by two Hungarian born directors, but who worked in the German film industry after WOI. In the 1920s they emigrated to Brazil, where they were also responsible for the first sound newsreels A Voz do Brasil.
São Paulo was in that period a booming city, by 1930 about 2,5 immigrants had already entered the city . This film was clearly produced before the economic crisis of 1929, because São Paulo, Sinfonia da Metrópole is showing with much pride how well the economy and the government is doing - though the film does not forget the blue collar workers in poor clothings. São Paulo, Sinfonia da Metrópole represents in a categorical organisation various parts of São Paulo´s public and economic live, it´s almost a patriotic propaganda film claiming the coming of an even better society with a ´a better race´(as one of the intertitles says). Remarkably is the long sequence of the city´s new prison. The text explains that crime results from poverty and ignorance, therefore the authorities try to convert the prisoners into better citizens by instructing them manual labour on the fields (´so that they learn to care for plants´), by obliging them to do physical exercises in large groups, drilling them as marching soldiers, educating them (learning to write), and providing - although not obligatory - catholic faith. While the film suggests that we follow one day in the city, from dawn till dusk, this prison sequence proves that it is a condensed montage of various days of filming - in fact the images of this film were taken over a period of two years. Moreover, though the broad composition of the film is categorical, in some sequences there are also small narrative lines interwoven. In the prison sequence we follow a newly arrived prisoner, number 1945: after a introducing aerial shot of the prison, we see number 1945 his fingerprints been taken, superficially examined by the prison doctor. Afterwards number 1945 will reappear in various parts of the prison sequence. While the prisoners are mostly shown as a group in long shots, the camera and the montage sometimes single out prisoner 1945: we see him at the blackboard in the class scene, praying in the church, receiving family visit etc. So, events may be more staged and less documentary than expected. Though the directors largely work with street scenes and with real people, some scenes are not as natural as one could expect from a documentary. Anyhow the directors do not hide this. At a certain point there´s some kind of flash back, we are supposed to see Brazilian soldiers celebrating the indepence in 1822, but the origin of these images remains unclear: were they staged for this film or shot from a contemporary rememberance show or taken from another ´historical film´? Moreover these European emigrant directors must have seen various films from their continent. Of course there´s the influence of other city symphonies (such as Walter Ruttmann´s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt), but there are - however not well motivated - references to abstract films (eg. a turning spiral and animated geometrical shapes), to the kind of shots Soviet directors as Eisenstein made famous (close ups of non identified hands grabbing for money)... The overall rhythm of São Paulo, Sinfonia da Metrópole is rather slow and various sequences are not terribly fascinating. It is for certain a less poetic film than the more famous city symphonies. Sometimes the directors use fancy techniques (as graphic matches, special filters), but seldom in a very consistent way. Their film lacks a coherent stylistic approach.
One could have expected at the end of the film a sequence of the city´s night life (bars, vaudeville etc.), but nothing came. Probably this didn´t fit into the overall idea of celebrating uplifting work for a better society. How bright things may look in this film, history didn´t run exactly in the proclaimed direction, because the economic crisis plunged the city in huge problems and the revolution of 1930 would dethrone São Paulo´s political supremacy.


  1. Promising blog! Nice work.
    Is the brazilian film available on Dvd?

  2. As far as I can understand the Portuguese text on the Catalisadora website they are planning a DVD.