Once upon a time, there was rock. And then there was post-rock, cinematic in nature. And then certain bands started to discover a natural pairing of post-rock with silent film. No more would they need to describe their music as “imaginary soundtracks”. The real thing was already waiting.
While many famous silent films have already been scored by bands such as 3epkano and My Education (“Sunrise”, “Nosferatu”, “Metropolis” and more), Walter Ruttman’s 1927 film “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City” seems tailor-made for such treatment. Impressionistic in nature, the film lacks standard plotting. In the first act, a train chugs, roars and pulls into the station. Water laps against the docks. A group of mannequins gazes wistfully into the early morning streets. A deserted bag dances in the wind, 80 years before “American Beauty”. This is a love letter to the city, from stray cat to labor force.
The music changes one’s appreciation of the images. One can match the video with the sound and note how the contemplative dips and climactic surges of post-rock enhance the viewing experience. This music contributes a sense of nobility to everyday acts: posting bills, walking to work, entering the factory. The genre’s simultaneous triumphant and melancholic undertones also allow the viewer to either celebrate the fact of production or to lament the existence of the assembly line.
Act II humanizes the populace, with images of a schoolchildren, an apple cart driver, a postal worker and other characters out of a Richard Scarry book. The folky lead guitar is a comfort, and the sweet bass like contributes a sense of calm. A piano passage four minutes in is particularly lovely. At this point, the viewer realizes the importance of the soundtrack as a conveyer of mood; the ears receive the cues that influence the eyes. While this is true of every film, it’s especially true in a dialogue-free venture. Those who doubt this score’s success should try playing a different sort of music over the images; few, if any, will work. One can’t imagine many bands, even post-rock bands, being able to pull this off, but We Stood Like Kings is up to the challenge.
Drama emerges at the end of the second act, as typewriter keys swirl, dogs fight and an operator slams a phone. In the third, men quarrel and the police intervene. But then it’s back to normal. A man notices a woman through a plate glass window; another couple gets married; then the director focuses his camera on some creepy dolls, or as the Germans call them, “dolls”. As an old woman walks up the church steps, the band responds with requisite tenderness. Again, tensions rise; again, they are averted. The “symphony” tag is appropriate, but it underlines the difficulty of creating an original score. The film is rife with juxtapositions, sometimes sensical (a child and then a monkey, eating) and sometimes disturbingly nonchalant (a suicide followed by a fashion show). The more one watches, the more one appreciates the band for knowing what tone or cluster of tones to strike. By the time the film ends, one is as impressed by the score as by the images. Post-rock fans will find unintentional humor in the fact that the film ends with explosions in the sky. We Stood Like Kings does exactly what their name implies; they hold their own with a classic. (Richard Allen)