During the years of the Weimar Republic, German film production flourished. In 1929, a collective of filmmakers got together to make a film named People of Sunday, which has now acquired a legendary status among connoisseurs. Historically, the film remains somewhat of an anomaly; it was made as a reaction against the celebrated Expressionist and fantasy films, and the even more popular historical spectaculars and melodramas of the time (mostly produced by UFA). It represented a rarely before seen type of cinematic realism that exposed life as actually lived by ordinary people, especially in cities, and especially on their one weekly day off work. Many, in fact, have quoted it as a direct predecessor to the later Italian Neorealism.
Made on a shoestring budget, People on Sunday became a surprise international hit, and influenced generations of film artists all around the world. It is about two young men and two young women who, paired off as lovers, meet in the public parks of Berlin, enjoying a weekend outing. There is no conventional narrative and no rewarding climax; just a bunch of emancipated youths for whom desire is happily spontaneous, and for whom Sunday is an occasion for a new romance to bloom, if only temporarily.
People on Sunday is highly regarded, also, for being a creative collaboration between artists who would later leave an indelible mark in film history, particularly in Hollywood, which would greatly benefit from the influx of many illustrious emigrées. It was co-directed by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, co-written by Curt Siodmak and Billy Wilder, and shot by cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan (assisted by Fred Zinnemann, here uncredited). The film was produced by “Filmsstudio 1929 Moriz Seeler,” set up by poet and head of an experimental theatre group whose name appears in this title. (In fact, People on Sunday was presented as the studio’s “first experiment.”)
People on Sunday also constantly blends the line between reality and fiction. It particularly does this in three ways. Firstly, the film was shot on location, in the parks of Berlin, both to save money and to obtain authenticity. Secondly, the cast was composed of non-professional actors, whose real names are used for the characters they portray. Both location and cast naturally impacted production schedules. (The cast included Brigitte Borchert, who would become Brigitte Bosch, after marrying the well-known illustrator or children’s books in 1936.) Thirdly, it really was shot on the weekends. This was mostly due to the fact that the parks were never sufficiently crowded except on Sundays, and to accommodate its first-time actors’ work schedules.
From the time of its release, the film was praised for its realism, but it was also categorized as an avant-garde picture, which John Howard Reid claims was a title that at the time was “a kind of prestigious award.” Indeed, the shots of the German capital bring to mind those from Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927).
Although, as mentioned, this film was the fruit of the collaboration between some big names at the beginning of their careers, it is the imperfections and amateurish stylings that greatly contribute to it feeling so contemporary. It is from these moments, and from the delight of capturing the essence of everyday life, that pure poetry arises in a disarmingly natural way. In retrospect, this laconic film feels lively and effervescent, but also quite lugubrious. Hitler’s ascent to power in German, which would happen soon after the 1930 release of People on Sunday, would put an end to both the richness of the German film industry of the Weimar Republic and the joyous Berlin portrayed in the film. – ★★★★★
MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG | 1930, Germany | Comedy | Directed by – Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer / Produced by -Edgar G. Ulmer, Seymour Nebenzal / Written by – Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Curt Siodmak / Starring – Erwin Splettstößer, Brigitte Borchert, Wolfgang von Waltershausen, Christl Ehlers, Annie Schreyer / Cinematography – Eugen Schüfftan / Running time: 73 mins.
Note: This review was written in reference to the screening of People on Sunday from the 2017 Il Cinema Ritrovato. The film was screened as part of a strand, “A Sunday in Bologna,” featuring works set on Sundays, curated by Alexander Payne and Neil McGlone, People on Sunday was screened from a 35mm print from the EYE Filmuseum. The print was restored in 1998 by EYE Filmuseum at L’Immagine Ritrivata laboratory from nitrate positives from EYE Filmuseum’ Cinémathèque Suisse, Cineteca Italiana, and Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique. People on Sunday was screened outdoors at Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, with live piano music performed by Donald Sosin.