Screened January 19 2010 on BFI DVD rip downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Los Angeles, CA
“A film without actors” reads the subtitle of this title card. You have to think about what a concept like that meant back in 1930 Germany, why it would be perceived as a selling point instead of a drawback. A desire to get away from the excesses of Weimar Expressionism (Caligari, Metropolis, Murnau) whose overt theatricality and expensively staged, light-and-shadow spectacle were perceived as out of touch with the reality of Germany. All the better for a band of up-and-coming German filmmakers to make a distinguishing statement for themselves. Ulmer, Zimmerman, Siodmark, Wilder, Schüfftan (whose pioneering work in special effects seems antithetical to the spirit of this particular production): no one at the time could have imagined what a dream team of legendary talent this would prove to be. (My deranged mind summons this as a contemporary hip-hop equivalent)
Wilder’s silent dialogue screenplay doesn’t give much indication of the verbal brilliance that would grace his future scripts; but the story, basically chronicling how two guys pick up and dump a couple of girls on a weekend tryst, does give a whiff of his trademark cynicism. The story, such as it is, was based on “reportage” by Robert Siodmark (I can see it now; Siodmark telling Wilder, “I know this guy…”)
In the opening montage that introduces the main characters, Schüfftan’s way of framing people flirts with the Soviet propaganda style, shooting ordinary working folk in a statuesque, heroic manner, like cab driver Erwin Splettstsser:
But when he gets around to the Erwin’s friend Wolfgang von Waltershausen, an “officer, farmer, antique dealer, gigolo, wine trader…” the staging and lighting is less flattering:
One also might wonder if the multiple job labels appended to Wolfgang signify him as a Berlin Everyman, in that there’s a shadiness in men of all stations, which makes them less inconographic and more complicated – and thus more real – than their Soviet onscreen counterparts.
When we get to Erwin’s galpal Annie, an unemployed model who lounges all day in their apartment, we are back in the realm of G.W. Pabst/Louise Brooks decadence, though made less sensationalistic and more quotidian – she’s less the symbol of Weimar moral depravation as just a girl killing time picking her fingernails, waiting for a job but too lazy/depressed to go and find it.
The plot kicks off at a bus stop with Christl, introduced as a real life movie extra – her casting as a lead here may be a conscious inversion of the pecking order of actors. Wolfgang picks her up and makes a date in this shot, shot in a telephoto on a bustling street with real pedestrians and presumably a real police officer who doesn’t know he’s being filmed.
It’s a verite technique that (permits be damned) continues to this day, so long as the desire for street realism persists. The first time I was ever conscious of it was when Siskel and Ebert pointed it out in their review of Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies:
For an outstanding present-day example of this technique, check out Bradley Rust Gray’s The Exploding Girl, which will be released this spring in the US. (The film’s street cinematography is highly influenced by Hou Hsiao Hsien’s use of the technique in Cafe Lumiere).
This is just one of several strategies used by the film to infuse its wisp of a narrative with a real-time, real-world immediacy and texture. Aside from cinematography, there’s also montages of street shots that break in between scenes involving the main characters, as if to say, this story is just one plucked from the many people and experiences happening now. The montages also provide invaluable incidental details on Berlin circa 1930: how people got around (trolleys, cars), how streets looked:
But again, realism in narrative cinema isn’t just a matter of shooting everyday streets and scenarios and leaving it up to whatever happens to pass in front of the camera, at least as far as this film is concerned. There’s a distinct craft on display. All the technical resourcefulness and attentive eyes that blessed German filmmaking of this period is now trained not on outsized spectacle or melodrama but on capturing, staging and conveying an unmistakable impression of the real, and making it feel effortless and incidental. This paradoxical effort truly comes through in the scene where Edwin comes back home to find Annie lounging. Their mutual sense of malaise slowly simmers through a series of mundane actions that erupt into a shared tirade. Count how many shots are used in this sequence, moving deftly across the room, moving ever tighter, as if the walls were closing in as surely as that incessant dripping of the faucet:
At last, to get at each other’s goat, they tear down a wall’s worth of matinee idol lobby cards (actresses for him; actors for her), an arresting image and yet another dig at the wall of conventional moviemaking that this film attempts to undermine – as if all these fantasy images were symptomatic of the self-oppression and alienation from reality that may be plaguing this couple (and really, how far have we come?). But before they can really have it out, Wolfgang waltzes in and the buddies pick up a game of cards, leaving Annie looking on helplessly. We get one devastating close-up before the camera recedes from this tomb-like chamber of discord.
The next day Wolfgang and Erwin meet up with Christl and her friend Brigitte, a salesgirl, for a jaunt to Nikolassee, a grand park and recreation area on the outskirts of Berlin. In this extended passage the film is a world away from the tightly rendered naturalism of Erwin’s apartment, and indulges in a series of bold ventures in alternative narrative cinema. To set things up there’s a titillating sequence where the youngsters awkwardly undress, hiding in the rushes along a river.
Later on they picnic in a nearby spot, engaging in some jocularity leading to Erwin getting playfully spanked. This triggers a jarring jump to a scene of schoolboys spanking each other. Is it a cutaway to some other part of Berlin where this is happening? Is it a flashback to Erwin’s school days?
This leads to an idyllic passage that roams the park landscape ripe with families picnicking with naked babies frolicking on the sunny grass – the film seems to be moving intuitively through a series of moods and associations of gaiety and youthful innocence…
But as the sun-drenched visuals continue, a sense of afternoon languor starts to creep in: the shots move back to the city, baking in the midday heat. Adults slump on park benches or slouch over windowsills. The montage comes to a rest back in the apartment of Annie, finding her sleeping:
And then leaps back to the park, where we find our party similarly resting in the sun. At least Erwin is behaving himself so far from his girl’s sight, though that leaves Wolfgang to casually lay his paws on both girls at once:
Another vaguely associative cut, jumping back to the city and the shot of a mannequin in lingerie basking in the harsh shadows of late afternoon – seductive yet strangely deathly in its inertness. The death theme creeps in further as the montage shifts to shots of a gravesite:
Which then matches graphically with the windows of an apartment building:
and then the montage shifts to a scene where a beach photographer takes souvenir photos, which are incorporated in the montage. The internal logic of the sequence seems to be a desire to overcome a creeping sense of death and languidness that threatens to extinguish all this life…
Immortalized by the camera:
… or in a moment of sexual fantasy. A moment unlike any other before in cinema – clearly no love involved, at least on the male side, so for the viewer there’s no pretense of romantic idealism attached to the moment.
It’s just the pure erotic charge of a moment, where woman’s common sense (I know this guy just wants to bone me, and yet…) puts up an initial resistence…
And yet… the intense sensation of touch, the warm breath of his nostrils under her palm, the sweat and pulse of sexual excitement. The moment where a girl and The Cinema both discover the feeling of sex…
… all in this shot…
And so, a film ostensibly about capturing the lives of everyday people funnels into a full-circle depiction of their desire to escape the everyday, if only for a moment…
Jump forward nearly 80 years – the push-pull explosive exertion of this moment hasn’t been forgotten, at least not by Jean-Luc Godard. Witness his trailer for the 2008 Viennale:
And see also the films of this guy to see how the spirit of People on Sunday lives on… Everyday people, enraptured in everyday fantasy.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of People on Sunday among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?
Arne Scheuermann, Senses of Cinema (2004)
Erik Ulrichsen, Sight & Sound (1952)
Guy Barefoot, One-Line Review (2009)
Hans Helmut Prinzler, Steadycam (2007)
Ludwig Gesek, Sight & Sound (1982)
William Brown, One-Line Review (2009)
Cinematheque Royale de Belgique FIAF: An Archival Viewpoint (1995)
David Thomson, Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008)
Sight & Sound, 360 Film Classics (1998)
Taschen Books, Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007)
The Guardian, 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Five young filmmakers, unknowns at the time, but who would go on to have illustrious careers in Hollywood, collaborate on an experimental feature – part documentary, part narrative, and starring a cast of five Berliners playing themselves. Dubbed “A film without actors”, People On Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) is a surprisingly modern work that is a major document in the history of German avant-garde cinema.
The film originated from a reportage by Kurt Siodmak (screenwriter, The Wolf Man, I Walked With a Zombie) that became a screenplay by none other than the great Billy Wilder. It was shot by Eugen Schüfftan (cinematographer The Hustler, Eyes Without a Face) and Fred Zinnemann (High Noon), and directed by Robert Siodmak (The Killers) and Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour). With that much talent behind the camera, it’s no wonder that the end result of this fortunate bit of happenstance is nothing short of fascinating.
Perhaps owing to its use of non-actors, People on Sunday has a remarkably modern feel to it, and the cast never employ the exaggerated gestures or acting style one tends to find in silent cinema. If anything, the film has more in common with the French New Wave than it does the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) that was dominating German cinema at the time (Lang, Pabst, Jutzi.) The boyish playfulness of Erwin and Wolfgang combined with their romantic machinations (and partner swapping) is right out of Masculin Féminin or Bande à Part.
Much of the narrative portion of the film is shot in close-up (Dreyer-esque at times), and Schüfftan’s framing of the good-looking cast is nothing short of stunning, and fitting for the awkward intimacy of the foursome. This is in sharp contrast to the vérité style montages of Berlin that are interspersed throughout the film which aim to capture the breadth of the city. An unforgettable sequence of random faces from the POV of a portrait photographer makes use of the freeze-frame, which some credit as being pioneered by Schüfftan (though I believe Vertov may heave beaten him to it.)
Much more than a mere curiosity, People on Sunday is at once a final look at a great city that in a year’s time would be forever changed, and a rare first glimpse into the minds of six artists who would leave a lasting imprint in the history of cinema.
– Filmbrain, Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
The motion picture’s dual appeal as both an art and a pastime is tied up in the camera’s ability to capture reality at the same time that it conveys fiction. Movies are an enchanting admixture of unvarnished truth and comforting anecdote, or, to paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, they can offer a slice of life and a slice of cake. This seems particularly true of the 1929 German independent filmPeople on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag). Shot on weekends, and on a shoestring budget, the film features five young Berliners essentially playing themselves. Its “plot” is gossamer thin, the action confined to a single day, roughly, and centered on a double-date outing to a park. The movie was a modest effort devised as a calling card for some would-be filmmakers with a rough-hewn aesthetic unlike anything coming out of Berlin’s prewar powerhouse film industry. Yet, in the history of film, it proved to be of major importance.
– Bruce Bennett, who offers a detailed account of the film’s production in Humanities magazine
People on Sunday is as much a love letter to the proletariat as the films of the Bolshevik giants, but politics are ultimately pushed aside for a celebration of a pursuit of happiness that’s in some way about transcending social class. As a snapshot of the last wave of youthful abandonment before the Hitler era, it’s a heartbreaker.
Sunday takes several breaks from the flirt swirl of its four main protagonists to remind the viewer that their story is just one of hundreds taking place in Berlin’s parks and waterfronts on any given weekend. In shots reminiscent of Soviet cinema, workers begin their day-off by marching en masse to their chosen recreation locations. In a montage of photographs taken by a street portraitist, we see that Sunday leisure is not just for the young and pretty–even the old and haggard have smiles on their faces. For all, it’s the one day of the week to put daily drudgery aside and pursue personal dreams and desires. If the other six days are spent working to live, Sundays are not just restorative, but transformative: it’s the one day out of seven that the worker can devote to shaping his/her own identity.
– Karina Longworth, Spout
Edgar G. Ulmer and Robert Siodmak directed it, Billy Wilder wrote it, Fred Zinnemann handled the camera, and Eugen Schüfftan did the lighting — a Rosetta stone of Germany’s post-Lang-Lubitsch-Pabst wave, but first and foremost a bunch of guys meeting in a café and deciding to make a movie. The air-filled location shooting is closer to Nouvelle Vague more than to neorealism, the camera high as Wolfgang von Waltershausen picks up Christl Ehlers at a trolley stop, to catch passersby on both sides of the street, bustling their way through Berlin circa 1929. Just two of a quintet of “real” people picked to enact a little city-symphony drama for the lens; the others are taxi driver Erwin Splettstößer, record salesgirl Brigitte Borchert, and model Annie Schreyer. Shaving cream on movie-star portraits, dripping faucets and arguments over the brim of a hat signal domestic suffocation in the cramped flat, so Splettstößer leaves Schreyer oversleeping to spend Sunday with Waltershausen and the other gals by the lake. Crisscrossing flirtation during a picnic, one couple switches with the other, a kiss in the woods triggers a languid circular tilt left, over the trees and across the garbage cans, before returning to find Waltershausen fixing his tie and Borchert laying on the floor, grinning. In between, the notion of cinema as snapshots of life is literalized by taking random pics of people along the way, with screen freezing into portraits — children and women striking mock-glamorous poses, a glimpse of Valeska Gert sneaked in. Images are easy to record, yet emotions are capricious, a cracked record and another pair of girls ending the day and spiking the lyricism with transience. Authorship remains diffuse with so many auteurs, so the movie belongs less to a single person than to an epoch, when Berlin could rank alongside Paris as a dream burg, or perhaps when budding artists could grab a camera and simply take to the streets. So back to work on Monday for these characters, and off to Hollywood for the makers.
– Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion
A documentary fiction, a fictional documentary: Menschen am Sonntag, ein film ohne Schausppieler, written by Curt Siodmak and Billy Wilder, and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert and Curt Siodmak and, to a minor extent, Fred Zinnemann, is the last notable silent film from Germany—an experiment in which young filmmakers flex their love of cinema. It is indeed “a film without actors”; the five main characters are played by nonprofessionals, who, titles tell us, returned to their ordinary jobs the next day.
The brilliant cinematographer is Eugen Schüfftan, who would photograph seminal black-and-white films, including Marcel Carné’sQuai des brûmes (1938). He and the filmmakers collaborate on a spontaneous air and fresh, crisp, exuberant, sometimes volatile images. Much of the framing surprises—and yet makes total sense: for instance, when Brigitte changes into her swimsuit she occupies a small lower portion of the screen and is surrounded by tall reeds that fill up the screen.
Emerging from an experimental movement known as ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (or ‘New Objectivity’), the young filmmakers involved in ‘People on Sunday’ (Robert and Curt Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinneman, Edgar G. Ulmer – all of whom went on to have illustrious careers in the industry) wove their drama from the ordinary details of life, in a novel blend of feature and documentary – yet so little actually happens in traditional narrative terms, and so unaffected are the performances, that it is easy to forget this is a feature at all, although impossible not to be charmed by these characters’ youthful clowning, courting and petty jealousies. The whole spirit of the enterprise is encapsulated in a central sequence in which people from all walks of life pose one-by-one in front of a beach photographer, their images then captured candidly in freeze frame (an effect not seen before this film) – for ‘People on Sunday’ is precisely a series of snapshots of common-or-garden reality, in which anyone and everyone can have their day on screen.
For all its revolutionary invention, ‘People on Sunday’ remains a timeless celebration of the meaningless pursuits that make life worth living – as well as an essential document of 1920s Berlin.
ABOUT THE BFI REGION 2 DVD
I’m going to do some speculation here – occasionally because of frame rate conversion from older silent films that are mastered in HD we can have ‘trailing” or what we call “ghosting” as a process of the transfer of such an older film. I don’t think though that this was transferred progressively (one frame at time) and can possibly be the same reason it shows limited ‘ghosting’ and ‘combing’ (see last capture). Regardless of that – the image looks marvelous – absolutely super. There was contrast flickering evident but it was often on the very last frame or 2 of certain scenes. I assume that the intertitles are new – and they look perfect as do the optional subtitles. There was minor dirt and scratches at times, but all ‘flaws’ of this image are more-or-less expected from a 75 year old film… but more – from a film virtually lost (original negative gone for good) and reconstructed. Amazing!
BFI have brought us an important film from cinema history and we applaud them for it. I’ll admit it – I was mesmerized while viewing. I feel like locking this DVD in the safe every night (if I had a safe). The liner notes extras are great for appreciation of the film. The “This Year -London” short featurette has some relational camp. I think People on Sunday was worthy of a commentary being that it is quite short, but I won’t be a nitpicker. An ESSENTIAL DVD!
– Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver
ABOUT CURT SIODMAK
Curt Siodmak was almost single-handedly responsible for the flowering of the second horror-film cycle. He wrote the best of Universal’s 1940s horror films and influenced all the others. While by no means a great writer, Siodmak is a gifted, sometimes inspired hack, who, in the course of a prolific career, has created many striking and enduring characters and concepts. He has described himself as an idea man, and he has certainly come up with ideas on which he and others have rung variations, time and again.
ABOUT ROBERT SIODMAK
Quotes from TSPDT profile page:
“Siodmak’s most successful projects – Phantom Lady, Christmas Holiday, The Suspect, Uncle Harry, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers – represent a fortuitous conjunction of such attractive actresses as Ella Raines, Dorothy McGuire, Ava Gardner, and even an absurdly lurid Deanna Durbin, with perverse subjects and expert technicians all whipped together with a heavy Teutonic sauce and served to the customers as offbeat art.” – Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
“Being Jewish, Siodmak had to flee the Nazis, arriving in Hollywood in 1940. Film noir gave him the opportunity to use his pictorial sense and his narrative skills, and he directed a string of atmospheric thrillers, including Phantom Lady (1944), The Killers and The Dark Mirror (both 1946), Cry of the City (1948) and Criss Cross (1949).” – (The Movie Book, 1999)
“An innovative and cinematic director, he explored the criminal or psychotic impulses in his characters through the ambience of his elegant mise-en-scène. The control of all cinematic tools at his command – camera angle, lighting, composition, movement, and design – was used to establish effectively a world of fate, passion, obsession, and compulsion. Although his reputation has been elevated in recent years, his name deserves to be better known.” – Jeanine Basinger (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
“During the 1940s, Siodmak developed into a formidable director of suspense and crime films. He was influenced by the German schools of expressionism and realism prevalent in the 20s. Both rubbed off into a blend which distinguishes his Hollywood period.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
Robert Siodmak’s career is one of the more underrated and misunderstood in the history of Hollywood. The merit of Siodmak’s cinematic art is also one of the most controversial. Among fanatic cinephiles, particularly those with a penchant for film noir thrillers, Siodmak is considered the primary architect of the genre. No other director has produced more quality film noir thrillers than Siodmak. His canon is a viewing list for any authentic study of the genre. His most notable film noirs include Phantom Lady, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, Criss Cross and The File on Thelma Jordan. However, among a small minority of film critics, he is considered a one-dimensional “yes” man who simply followed marching orders established by studio executives. These critics suggest Siodmak’s success was a direct product of the studio system and the cadre of filmmakers studios arranged for him. Lastly, Siodmak’s popularity among casual movie fans is virtually nonexistent. Many have never heard of him, and when they have, they rarely can even pronounce his name (see-odd-mak – emphasis on the “odd”). The latter two assessments of Siodmak’s career are inaccurate, because he was the primary auteur of one of America’s most important film genres.
– Chris Justice, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
ABOUT EDGAR G. ULMER
The films of Edgar G. Ulmer have generally been classified as “B” pictures. However, it might be more appropriate to reclassify some of these films as “Z” pictures. On an average, Ulmer’s pictures were filmed on a six-day shooting schedule with budgets as small as $20,000. He often worked without a decent script, adequate sets, or convincing actors. But these hardships did not prevent Ulmer from creating an individual style within his films.
—Linda Obalil, Film Reference.com