Take a walk in Berlin a century ago


I have no idea of the provenance of this film — the title (by YouTube user MrYourentertainer) says ‘Berlin 1900’ but some of it, at least, dates to a decade or two later — and at first it seems much like other early archival footage you will have seen: aerial shots, a bell tower, crowds.  But then, beginning at the 28 second mark, it becomes something else: a vivid, on-the-ground evocation of life in the German capital so real and palpable it feels like you’ve visited.  I can’t recall any footage at a similar temporal distance from the current day with more sense of presence — so much so that the thought occurs (with a gasp) that every single person in these frames is dead, as are the vast majority of their immediate descendants.

The other striking thing about the film is that it’s in color, though it was presumably colorized after the fact; an archive in Bradford has what it claims as the first color film footage, which it dates circa 1902.  Even in still photography, color was uncommon in 1900.  Though there were color experiments in the 1840s, the three-color method that would open up the field was suggested in a paper by James Clerk Maxwell in 1855 and the first photograph employing it was of this ribbon, taken under Maxwell’s direction by Thomas Sutton in 1861:

Tartan Ribbon, 1861, photo by Thomas Sutton

Color photography remained sufficiently rare for the next half a century that Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii’s color photographs of the Russian Empire from the 1910s still seem astounding.  I wrote more about them here, but I’ll include one below as an example:

The Emir of Bukhara in 1911, photo by Prokudin-Gorskii

 

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