Note: This is the hundred-and-sixtieth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite 1930 film, PEOPLE ON SUNDAY, directed by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer.
On the eve of silent Weimar cinema’s end, a handful of young filmmakers pooled together some money, time, and ideas for a wonderful ode to youth and the lively culture of Berlin that would soon be ruined by the Nazis. PEOPLE ON SUNDAY’s behind-the-screen credits are populated by a wealth of soon-to-be Hollywood successes: directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, writers Curt Siodmak and Billy Wilder, and camera operator Fred Zinnemann. Rounding out the big names was veteran cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, famous for the Schüfftan process developed for METROPOLIS (1927) three years earlier.
In addition to this remarkable conglomeration of great minds before they were recognized as such, PEOPLE ON SUNDAY has been praised as and has remained a unique classic for its use of non-professional actors. Its principal characters are played by everyday Berlin citizens, “reprising” their occupations and bringing to their roles an authenticity that reveals the nature of youth. PEOPLE ON SUNDAY’s success in coaxing out their performances, played to a loving camera, should also be a major motivator for anyone wanting to make movies or contribute to them in any manner.
PEOPLE ON SUNDAY has a very simple “plot.” A group of four head out to the river for a Sunday excursion: Erwin, a taxi driver; Brigitte, a record shop sales assistant; Wolfgang, a wine salesman; and Christl, a film extra. Wolfgang had met Christl the day before, inviting her to go out, and she brought along her best friend Brigitte; Erwin is Wolfgang’s buddy. Left out of the mix is Erwin’s girlfriend Annie, a model who sleeps the whole day and is only roused when Erwin returns. But don’t feel that Annie is truly callous or uncaring. In a way, she’s been made to be by Erwin.
A lot of writing and conversation about PEOPLE ON SUNDAY has concerned its lighthearted tone and joyful celebration of Berlin life in the late 1920s and early ’30s. Indeed, it deftly portrays the liveliness of the city and the bucolic beauty of a Wannsee river. PEOPLE ON SUNDAY’s central characters are really quite spontaneous, not unpleasant to look at, and generally have fun. But as I watched it again, it dawned on me that the movie is not without its cynicism, and that feeling was cemented by WEEKEND AM WANNSEE, a 2000 documentary directed by Gerald Koll. In it, which accompanies PEOPLE ON SUNDAY on the Criterion Collection’s release of the film, the then-still surviving Curt Siodmak and Brigitte Borchert correct some assumptions and point out that the movie is actually quite cynical. Even more particularly, as elucidated by Borchert, PEOPLE ON SUNDAY portrays the carelessness of young men.
First of all, Erwin and Annie get in a fight Saturday night because of his ignoring her and reticence to go on a date with her. Then, when he leaves to go out on Sunday morning, Erwin only hollowly attempts to wake her up and bring her along. Wolfgang, on the other hand, had asked Christl out himself. But when she isn’t entirely receptive to his kisses out in the river, he turns to Brigitte, who is much more happy to reciprocate. So throughout much of the idyllic day trip, one female member of the quartet is upset and jealous and the other is semi-consciously cutting out her friend from a potential relationship. Meanwhile, the two men are obliviously enjoying their days, flirting as they go, without much consideration for the women, both at home and right next to them. And ultimately, at the end of the movie (and without informing her), Wolfgang rescinds his plan to go out with Brigitte the next Sunday to go to a soccer game with Erwin.
I think part of the reason why these kind of sad and detestable acts are not front and center in the minds of viewers and critics is because the PEOPLE ON SUNDAY cast and crew clearly paint these actions as a function of youth. Brigitte, Wolfgang, Erwin, and Christl are all spontaneous, after all, and their energy is generally positive for much of the film. Indeed, it seems to conclude with everyone relatively pleased, even Christl. But of course, it really ends on the sour note of the men’s ignorance. Besides these young people’s characterizations, PEOPLE ON SUNDAY also succeeds because of its clear homage to the “city symphony” cinematic form. Following in the footsteps of Walter Ruttmann’s BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929), Siodmak, Ulmer, and Co. showcase the organic machinations of city and country, imbuing their central narrative with apparently unrelated scenes of life. But especially as the film starts to cut back and forth between the personal events in the country and the collective action of the city, it isolates the characters’ emotions and actions in a youthful bubble.
All of these themes are brilliantly visualized by Schüfftan’s cinematography. As Curt Siodmak would share, PEOPLE ON SUNDAY is not about the actors; it’s about the camera. While I wouldn’t fully agree, I would say that Schüfftan’s camera (with Zinnemann’s help) does fill out the movie’s emotional core with the little details of city life and country excursions. The core cast, who had never acted before, do as good a job or better than many of their professional contemporaries. But who exactly coached them into those positions, or indeed if it was latent talent from all of the actors, is not entirely clear. In fact, over the decades, various people have claimed more or less credit for the creation of PEOPLE ON SUNDAY. The answer seems to lie somewhere in the middle. Billy Wilder probably didn’t have an intensely crafted screenplay; Borchert asserts that the guys didn’t even know what they were doing day-to-day. They planned it just before going out to shoot, and incorporated many improvised moments into the final film. Curt Siodmak says his brother Robert drove the whole thing along, as the rest of them (including Curt himself) didn’t have the “energy” for the project. It is clear that Schüfftan was the major force behind the cinematography, especially as the veteran in the crew, but how exactly did Zinnemann contribute?
The vague answers to questions like these may be discarded in favor of a greater result, which is perhaps speculation. PEOPLE ON SUNDAY may simply have been produced by a collective made up mostly of filmmaking novices that contributed in ways beyond the strict crediting system of major motion pictures. I mean, on what other movie sets do screenwriters (as Wilder did in this case) hold up a reflective screen to bring lighting to the actors’ faces?
The answer, I suppose, is on independent movie sets. PEOPLE ON SUNDAY is an ahead-of-its-time prediction of the field that wouldn’t fully emerge until, if you want to be charitable, the 1950s. And that’s simply in terms of production, to say nothing about its formal echoes in the movies coming out of France and Italy 20 years or more later. So besides its contradictory celebration of and cynicism around youth, and the way it beautifully renders that contradiction, PEOPLE ON SUNDAY is also a great testament to the passion of moviemaking. I know no other film I’ve watched since THEY’LL LOVE ME WHEN I’M DEAD (2018) has made me want to get into the craft quite so much. Maybe I should start working on those screenplays again.