Gus Berger’s love song to a city old, new, wrecked and blue

Despite its title and the fact it’s packed with glorious archival images and footage, The Lost City of Melbourne is as much about the city today as it is the vaguely mythical “marvellous Melbourne” of old.

The documentary, made by cinema entrepreneur Gus Berger, began almost as an act of desperation, but stands as something proud, celebratory and hopeful. It is, in a sense, a perfect relic of the age of COVID and all it forced upon us, and its debut at the grand Capitol Theatre as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival is a moment of triumph – for Berger, for the festival, and for Melbourne as a whole.

Swanston Street, looking north, as seen in Gus Berger’s documentary The Lost City of Melbourne.Credit:State Library of Victoria

“The one good thing that came out of lockdown for me – and there weren’t many good things – was finally to have the time to do continuous research,” says Berger, who owns the Thornbury Picture House, the boutique cinema in a former garage, and the pop-up outdoor business Blow-Up Cinema, both of which were shut down by COVID.

“It was probably led by how I was feeling about Melbourne being in such a world of pain with everything closed, with hospitals full and schools closed. It was a way for me to connect with the city.”

His journey into the collections of the State Library of Victoria and the National Film and Sound Archive started as an investigation of the old picture palaces, magnificent temples to the golden age of the talkies, built in the late 1920s and 30s. The city retains some fine examples – the Regent on Collins Street, the Astor in St Kilda, the Westgarth in Northcote – but so many more were demolished as the city attempted to shake off its slumber in the 1950s and reinvent itself.

But as he went deeper, he realised it wasn’t just the cinemas and theatres that had gone. “I was seeing all these other buildings that were dotted around the CBD that were no longer standing, and I was curious to find out what happened to the APA building, what happened to the Australia Building, what happened to those markets that took up such a big space in the city?”

Images such as this one, of a Bourke Street crowd in the early 20th century, had a special poignancy for Berger in the depths of Melbourne’s long COVID lockdowns.Credit:State Library of Victoria

What happened is that many of them submitted to the ball of Whelan the Wrecker, a demolition firm that operated throughout the 20th century. But tempting though it might be to paint the firm as the villain of the piece, Berger’s film evinces a genuine respect for their expert ability to unpick these massive edifices, some built in the Victorian age with the ambition to outlast the pyramids.

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