Director: Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay: Curt Siodmak (based on a reportage by – as Kurt Siodmak), Billy Wilder (screenplay – as Billie Wilder)
Starring: Erwin Splettstößer, Brigitte Borchert, Wolfgang von Waltershausen, Christl Ehlers, Annie Schreyer
Running Time: 75 min
BBFC Certificate: E
Watching (and reviewing) the documentary From Caligari to Hitler late last year, I was reminded how fruitful the Weimar Republic era of Germany was in producing wonderful and often groundbreaking films, as well as kickstarting the careers of many of the all-time great figures of cinema. One film specially highlighted in that documentary which launched the careers of a handful of famous filmmakers was People on Sunday (a.k.a. Menschen am Sonntag. I must admit I’d never heard of it prior to watching From Caligari to Hitler, but on hearing that the boundary-pushing film was made by a young inexperienced crew that included Robert and Curt Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann and cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, I was keen to see it for myself. The BFI must have read my thoughts as here they are, only a few months later, releasing People on Sunday in a carefully remastered Blu-Ray package.
People on Sunday has the slightest of plots. Wolfgang (who like all the ‘actors’ here is a non-professional, playing himself) meets a girl, Christl, out in town and invites her to join him and his friends at the beach on Sunday. Erwin, his friend, shows up without his wife Annie, who just wants to sleep all day, and Christl arrives with her friend Brigitte. Wolfgang shows little interest in Christl after meeting Brigitte and proceeds to flirt with and eventually sleep with her, much to the jealous annoyance of her friend. Among this soapy affair, we watch other Berliners enjoying their day off after working hard throughout the week.
So there’s not much to the film in terms of narrative and some may be put off by the slight nature of it all. However, the film revels in presenting a wonderfully naturalistic portrait of city life on the weekend. On top of using ‘non-actors’ in the lead roles, the snapshots of Berlin, which make up a great deal of the film, are shot as a documentary, making this a kind of fiction/documentary hybrid. The ‘script’, though credited to the great Billy Wilder and Curt Siodmak, was almost all improvised according to most sources, so the film doesn’t concern itself with telling a grand or compelling story, rather just laying back and enjoying a lazy sunny Sunday.
That’s one of the great pleasures of the film. It has a warm, beautifully natural air to it that is a joy to breathe in. In both the orchestrated scenes with the leads and the documentary footage, the camera delights in picking up wonderful little details, such as Wolfgang making his cigarette ash expand using drips of water or Christl fixing her swimsuit before heading into the water. All the flirting, bickering and goofing around feels ‘real’ and the filmmakers are clearly making a point about this as they often drop references to artificially glamorous studio films. There’s a fairly open sexual energy to the film too, that helps it feel modern and sets it apart from the slightly later films of Hollywood that were hampered by the Hays Code. There’s even a scene where a couple clearly has sex. The camera pans away, but it soon comes back shortly after the act and we’re never in doubt as to what happened.
The film is playful in its style too. On top of mixing fiction with factual filmmaking, which was fairly radical in itself, there are some editing techniques reminiscent of Russian silent cinema and some occasionally loose and possibly handheld shots to breathe even more life into proceedings. This playful mixing of styles, as well as the use of non-actors, means the film feels like a precursor to the French New Wave. It’s also a clear influence on Italian neo-realism, for obvious reasons.
So it’s a hugely influential film, not just in the fact it launched the careers of several Hollywood greats, but in helping shape important worldwide movements. It’s interesting how those involved seemed to work in genres and styles markedly different to this in later years, despite its critical and commercial success (in its home country at least). Perhaps what history later had in store for them changed their perspectives and interests, but whatever the reason for change, this stands as an outstanding calling card for a group of filmmakers destined for great things. Slight on plot, but brimming with life, it’s a groundbreaking, quietly bold film that is still a relaxed pleasure to watch today.
People on Sunday is released on 17th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by the BFI. The picture shows signs of wear, but considering some of the film was lost and this print was cobbled together from various sources, it looks pretty damn good. Details are clear and there is little fading present. You get a choice of 2 scores to accompany the film too. I opted for the múm one when watching the film as I’m a fan of the group, and it’s beautiful, adding a fittingly modern feel to the film.
There are a handful of extra features included too:
– Presented in High Definition
– Two vibrant scores by leading Australian composer Elene Kats-Chernin and the experimental Icelandic group múm
– Weekend am Wansee (Weekend at the Wannsee, 2000, 31 mins): Gerald Koll’s documentary about People on Sunday featuring interviews with star Brigitte Borchert and writer Curt Siodmak
– Eine Fahrt Durch Berlin (A Trip Through Berlin, 1910, 6 mins): a ride through the streets of Berlin, from the bustling Friedrichstraße and Leipziger Straße to the city seen from the Spree
– Beside the Seaside (1935, 23 mins): Marion Grierson’s beguiling picture of the British seaside, with a commentary written by WH Auden
– This Year London (1951, 28 mins): documentary by John Krish following the adventures of Leicester factory workers on their staff outing to London
– New audio commentary by critic and author Adrian Martin
-**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet with new essays by Amanda De Marco and Sarah Wood and full film credits
The commentary is very good, with the ever-reliable Adrian Martin enlightening listeners as to the story behind the film and possible readings into it. The ‘Weekend am Wansee’ doc is equally required viewing for anyone interested in learning more about People on Sunday. The booklet also offers plenty of food for thought and makes for recommended reading. The other short films included in the set are nice additions, but more for curiosity value than anything else.