From London to Shanghai, clips of cities from the early days of film can be a valuable tool for understanding the process of urbanisation today.
London in 1927, in colour
The clip of London begins with a tram passing along Tower Bridge Road in Bermondsey – instantly recognisable as the same street it is today, with only the vehicles and the soot that stains Tower Bridge dating it. The film then shifts to a pan across a River Thames that doesn’t exist anymore – a thicket of cranes, ships and blackened warehouses – before shifting back to London Bridge, with a view of then fairly newly completed neoclassical office blocks, again almost indistinguishable from the same view today.
London in 1927 in Colour – a five-minute distillation of the London footage from Claude Friese Greene’s early colour compilation, The Open Road – is one of hundreds of historic clips all over the internet that offer an early cinematic portrait (usually pre-war) of city x in year x. Berlin in 1900, Paris in 1928, Broadway in the 1920s, each with thousands of hits. What is their appeal, and what can we learn from them? This sort of old footage plays games with memory, something which can have particularly strange results when urban memory is highly contested – as in bombed and reconstructed cities such as Warsaw.
Watching pre-war footage of cities can be an enjoyably alienating sensation – not so much the shock of the old, as the shock of the combination of the familiar and the entirely strange. For instance, I immediately recognised the first shot of London in 1927 in Colour as being taken from much the same vantage point you could obtain today by sitting on the top deck of the 188 bus. But the economy and life lived in the area has transformed, with the warehouses and cranes replaced with office blocks and luxury flats (the Shard would only just be out of shot).
What makes a lot of this footage so compelling is the leisurely way it is shot, frequently by mounting a camera on the top of a bus or tram: simple, easy and panoramic, the film you could have made had you taken your cameraphone on top of the 188 bus in 1927. With many silent clips, the lack of newsreel-style voiceover also induces a certain dreaminess.
Nankin Road, Shanghai (1901)
An inhabitant of the Puxi side of the Haungpu river, rather than the south side of the Thames, couldn’t have the same reaction in watching Nankin Road, Shanghai, 1901. This view of a main street in the city’s British-administered International Settlement reveals a great density of Chinese shop signs and many more people on the streets than in most London footage. There’s the odd bicycle or horse and cart, but mostly the traffic is rickshaws, long before their recent, semi-ironic revival in western capitals. Men run along the street carrying other – often European – men on their backs. At the end, a platoon of Gurkhas patrols the street, flanked by two less disciplined-looking, fag-smoking British officers. Nothing of this landscape survives in today’s high-rise, neon-bedecked Nanjing Road, and few could seriously miss it.
Liverpool overhead railway (1950s)
Contrasts of the urban past and present formed the basis for an installation project by the filmmaker Patrick Keiller, The City of the Future, where archival footage – mostly from Mitchell and Kenyon, mostly from the top of buses and trams – juxtaposed with shots of the same places in the 21st century prove a seemingly counter-intuitive point. The vast majority of the British streets (if not those in the “colonies”) were basically unchanged, but for the fact that the people therein were a bit healthier and fatter, and the buildings less sooty but more dilapidated. The “city of the future” envisaged by the likes of HG Wells happened only in pockets, at least in the places tracked by these films.
It’s the opposite approach to that of Terence Davies’ acclaimed Of Time and the City, where similar footage was marshalled into a much more pessimistic depiction of a British city that had allegedly prostituted its grandeur for an inept modernisation. Much of Davies’ film hinged on thrilling shots from the Liverpool Overhead Railway, a rapid transit system unforgivably demolished and replaced with a dual carriageway in the 1950s. Even then, however, as this other footage from the overhead railway shows, the main thing missing from the same view today is industry, not buildings.
Havana, Cuba (1930s)
Another sense of “non-change” is provided by this popular clip of Havana, filmed by the travelogue-maker André de la Varre in a similar laconic, drifting style to Mitchell and Kenyon or Friese-Greene. The view of this magnificent, colonial city could probably be recreated shot-for-shot, building for building today, bar the monuments to the US army. However, the dilapidation of the Cuban capital now would contrast with the bourgeois elegance on show in these eight minutes. If only, the viewer might wonder, the revolution hadn’t happened, then maybe Havana would be like Miami by now! The advance from a ferociously unequal mafia capital to a country with the highest life expectancy in the region is not easy to register via panoramic shots of monumental architecture and busy streets.
What, though, about cities that weren’t mostly left alone (as in Britain or Cuba), or that didn’t redevelop themselves to the point of unrecognisability (as in China), but which were destroyed? The Polish capital Warsaw was razed to the ground by the Wehrmacht in 1944 after their suppression of the Warsaw Rising. The response from the post-war government was to rebuild the historic Old and New Town, partly via a meticulous study of Canaletto paintings, rather than from available pre-war footage of what had by then become a rather dilapidated and commercialised area.
This can be seen in this charming 1955 city short: Niedzielny Poranek (Sunday Morning) by Andrzej Munk. Though semi-fictional, centred on the flirtations of the city’s public transport staff (meaning a lot of good shots from moving buses), it does what it was intended to do in showcasing the romance and success of the reconstruction. However, the city’s 19th-century commercial areas were not reconstructed, and it’s this absence that forms the basis of a rather extraordinary essay in imaginary reconstruction, the short film Warszawa 1935 …
Warsaw reconstructed (1935)
There is decent real footage of the pre-war city, such as the clip Pre-war Warsaw in Colour, which gives a view of the city in 1939 with the usual sorts of views – parks, “picturesque” residents (here, Orthodox Jews) and grand neoclassical buildings. However, this partial and fragmented picture was not enough for the makers of Warszawa 1935, who created a film that had never actually been made about the city on the eve of its destruction – pieced together in its absence through animation and meticulous architectural reconstruction.
The result is thorough and architecturally precise, if somewhat sentimental with its sweeping perspectives and elegaic music. But this 3D spectacular rings remarkably hollow. It is an attempt to prove that what contemporaries saw as a tense, impoverished city ruled by a military dictatorship was actually a successful capitalist metropolis – a retrospective CGI ad for a 1930s property developer, with the same creepy purple skies as architectural renders.
No city could ever have been this coherent, this clean, this elegant. Claiming Warsaw as a “Paris of the East”, it makes the actual Paris of 1935 – available in clips such as Paris, the Beautiful 1930s – look positively squalid. But then the difference is that nearly every component of that Paris still exists, so you could still make that film today.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.