The so-called city symphony, also often described as city film or city poem, is a film genre that had its heydays in the 1920s and 1930s. Combining elements of documentary, narrative, and experimental film, city symphonies do not present the city as a mere background for a story. Instead, the metropolis, urban modernity, and big-city life are the subjects (or even the protagonists) of the film. Well-known examples include Manhatta (Paul Strand & Charles Sheeler, 1921), Rien que les heures (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1926), Berlin: Die Symphonie einer Großstadt (Walther Ruttmann, 1927), and Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929). Over the years these films have become canonical works in the history of (experimental) film. They are often referred to and they are amply discussed in major reference works. Moreover, because of their close connections to the visual arts, particularly Futurism, Surrealism, Constructivism, and the so-called New Vision in photography, these films often occupy key positions in discussions about the avant-gardes of the 1920s and 1930s.
However, in contrast to the fame of these aforementioned films, dozens of similar films, which were produced in the late 1920s and 1930s on both sides of the Atlantic, fell into oblivion. Apart from the most famous examples set in New York, Paris, Berlin, and Moscow, contemporaneous filmmakers also turned their “kino-eyes” on cities such as Düsseldorf, Lourdes, Marseille, Montreal, Nice, Ostend, Porto, Prague, Rotterdam, and Sao Paulo among many others. Although a great many other prominent artists and directors were attracted to this genre, including Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Robert Flaherty, Henri Storck, Jean Vigo, Joris Ivens, and Manoel de Oliveira, a general overview of the international production of city symphonies has never been made. This project attempts to remedy this situation, demonstrating that city symphonies have been produced in many countries and that the phenomenon was much more complex and multi-layered than is generally assumed.