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10 | A film frame from The city of the riches is still in the city of the poors

11 | The City of the Rich
is still in the City of the Poor (1930)

Leonardo Ciacci

Ended (?) the urban working class, dissolved (?) his social status, even the urban space seems to have lost its shape of whole of functional parts, suitable for different groups and organized activities. The mass access to home ownership, has also recently converted family stories in stories of individuals, no longer linked to a relationship of contiguity, rather subject to mobility imposed by reasons of the investment property. Buying a house affects the relationship of people with the urban space and transfers the task of organizing that connection on the population itself; the city seems to have lost its old internal borders.

Simply losing a job or not being able to continue to pay the mortgage, it is often enough to discover how dramatically high and still resistant are the internal boundaries of the urban space; high and strong even today, although in a way not obvious to the eye of everyday life, almost like they were perfectly visible to all workers in the suburbs of the cities in Europe, less than a century ago.


 Wie Der Berliner Arbeiter wohnt | How the Berliner worker lives
 Berlin, 1930

 Director: Slatan Dudow
 Production: Weltfilm
 Features: b&w, 13 min.



To tell how hard those distances were in the years between ’20s and ’30s is the scope of Wie Der Berliner Arbeiter Wohnt (How the Worker Lives in Berlin, also quoted as Current Problem: as the Worker Lives [1]), a few minutes long "revolutionary film", filmed in 1930 by Slatan Dudow [2] and produced in the still social democratic Berlin by the Weltfilm, a production company openly oriented towards the creation of instruments of political cinema.

Wie Der Arbeiter Berliner Wohnt actually had another goal: to deny the mystify dream of Metropolis, the long film realized by Fritz Lange three years earlier, in 1927. The screenplay, written by Thea von Harbour, also if riddled with stereotypes - the Jew scientist, a love stronger than social barriers, a sense of mystic religion practiced into catacombs, to name just a few of them - but also imaginative visions surprisingly for those years - the city of skyscrapers, elevated urban highways, the television - had provided a powerful image to the widespread need for a new social urban agreement inEurope in the late '20s. Representing it with a handshake between employer and worker, the closing sequence of the film stated as possible to overcome the boundaries between the capital city, built over, under the sun light of the surface, and the city of work, hidden in the perennial darkness of the underground. Two years later, in 1929, with the global crisis originated from the stock market crash on Wall Street, the world will discover dramatically the outcome of that confrontation in reality.

A series of actual contingencies seems to make relevant again the far, raw, dramatic black and white sequences of Wie Der Arbeiter Berliner Wohnt. In 1930, unemployment inGermany was uncontrollable: to see employees rummaging through trash cans looking for a subway ticket, an abandoned newspaper... of something still usable - are some of the sequences in the film - was the image of every day life. While in the rich, high-class suburb houses, highly polished brass bells were frequent destination of old crippled beggars, "the unpleasant visitor," looking for a charity.

The "house" of Berliners is the subject of the film and two parallel stories will provide the interpretation. In the basement, behind a unique window open at the sidewalk level, is holed a family of derelicts - unemployed father, prematurely aged mother, two hungry children and an old grandfather immobilized in bed, sick -. A large urban single house, isolated in its own flower and cured garden, is the home of a wealthy and ruddy rich bourgeois who devotes his time to the bathroom in the foam of his well-fed mastiff dog. He laughs happy and gives the camera a figure not at all worried by the crisis ravaging the country, happy to show off his privileged position.

A sign explains the situation: "In the tenements many families have to share a unique, dark and unhealthy room. Bad basements spoil the health of workers. The vital energy of children is destroyed by the miserable living conditions ": this film," taken from real life" [3], shows it to us, showing the distance of that situations from the privileged one contiguous to them. Masses of workers leaving the factory gates towards the commuter trains; they are men and women with their eyes in a vacuum, looking as sick people, made indifferent to suffering from the anxiety for a future that is not there. That are recurring images in the political cinema of those years­­­­­­­­ [4], but Wie Der Berliner Arbeiter Wohnt goes further, he chooses to follow his characters even in their home to produce an effect of identification and response. A letter arrives in the unemployed home and communicates the rent increase: "4%" more. Begins now the end of the tale of two different destinies.
"Unchanging contradictions ", let they live in the same city popular areas with the middle-class areas; placed where air and light are words which have very different meanings. The "gardens" of children of working families are the courtyards of the "barracks dwelling": "... breeding ground for tuberculosis."  

In 1900 in Berlin 1% of each house (eigenheim) corresponded to 98% of tall apartments blocks (mietshaus): 77 people on average per building. They are many in those years in Germany who are worry about that situation and theorize solutions (trabantenprinzip) toward cities with satellite neighbourhoods where to create healthy living conditions in homes with green open spaces for working families just arrived in the city from the countryside. Or theoreticians of the vertical city (wohlfahrtsstadt), designed to organize home and work in the same tall building, repeated in a city without limits, able to overcome the problems caused by the distance between the town centre and the ever-expanding suburbs, and the difference quality of houses for the poor and those for the rich [5].
Only Metropolis, the movie, seems to be able to establish a truce between capital and labour, centre and periphery, wealth and poverty, the gap between the distances of the past and the aimed freedom of the future. In reality, the barriers are well marked; the prosperous city of the rich is inside the city of the poor.
The unfortunate father of the family in the basement has a burst of pride, trying to rebel against the eviction, but he can do nothing against the military in uniform arrived to push him in the street with his cart full of poor things to bring... nobody knows where.
The city of the rich dangerously remains in the centre of the city of the poor, wile the gap between rich and poor is widening, the law it seems to be unequal and the city is still not a common construction.

Leonardo Ciacci
Dipartimento di Progettazione e Pianificazione in Ambienti Complessi
Università IUAV di Venezia, Venezia, Italy


[1] See Leonardo Quaresima, Cinema e rivoluzione. La via tedesca 1919-1932, Longanesi, Milan 1979, p.351.
[2] After that he was the director of Kuhle Wampe, of Bertold Brecht (1932)
[3] From the titles in the film.
[4] See Was Wir Schufen, Berlin 1928, script by Max Fecner and Richard Lohmann, directed by Hans Furmann or Die Städt von Morgen. Ein Film vom Städtebau (The city of future. A film on Town Planning), Berlin 1930, direction, subject and script by Maximillian von Golbeck and Erich Kotzer.
[5] “We have architects, everything else is desperately bad". That is the answer give by Lange to Ludwig Spietzer who is questioning him on young German artists, in «Die Film Technik», no.2, 1925.