I always remind people culture is like a tree,” writer Curt Siodmak told an interviewer in Gerald Koll’s Weekend am Wannsee (2000). “It always blooms one last time before it dies.”
“Berlin was like that.”
When Siodmak said this, he was looking back at the city from more than a half-century’s distance. The clip is part of a “making of” documentary about a whimsical film project of Curt’s youth—People on Sunday. That film project was made when Curt, who later reinvented the werewolf, was still named “Kurt”; when his brother Robert and a few of their friends (among them Billy, then Billie, Wilder and Edgar G. Ulmer) had the moxie to put together their meager savings, borrow equipment, find a few amateur actors to play themselves, inveigh upon a relative’s financial goodwill, and come out with a freewheeling film excursion that, according to film scholar Noah Isenberg, delighted audiences of its day.
What it does to audiences of our day, however, goes far beyond its original ambitions in the year of its making. Today, People on Sunday feels like a precious pair of earrings salvaged from piles of volcanic ash in Pompeii, or a vial of perfume lifted from the RMS Titanic—a living artifact whose reflections might tell us something important about precipitous times.
That time was 1929, and the city it depicts, Berlin, was at the end of a wild, world-influencing decade we’ve all heard a lot about: the Weimar era. It produced Berlin Alexanderplatz (literature), The Blue Angel (Dietrich), Bauhaus (buildings), Brecht (and Weill), Expressionism (of course), and Benjamín (the one and only Walter).
On first glance, People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) may not look like a product of its day. It has no imposing set design, no breaking of the fourth wall, no saucy cabaret. It pays some attention to architecture, but not the vanguard kind, and critical theory is out while everyday details are in. Cinematically, it feels more like Jean-Luc Godard’s ’60s (Breathless) than Fritz Lang’s ’20s (Metropolis). But it shares a key force that propelled all the culture coming from its moment. It seizes the day.
The principals’ memories of the production timeline conflict, but codirector Robert Siodmak recalls the film was completed by September. Billy Wilder (credited as scriptwriter) says the production jumped off in July. So—if it was the summer of 1929 when People on Sunday was shot—its Berlin was, as Curt Siodmak describes, in a kind of terminal bloom.
Looking back on that moment we know it was fateful—coming as it did on the eve of the Great Depression and the subsequent ascendance of Nazi Party rule. But in its moment, the film took the brash and optimistic vantage points of youth. People on Sunday doesn’t show us an impending apocalypse, or hints of disaster (though there does seem to be a military parading in the background of at least one scene). What it projects are chic urbanites in full-fledged flirtation; pouty boyfriends with beerhall manners. It sees paddleboats and tourist snack-shops, portable phonographs and breakable hearts. It sees stolen kisses and wandering eyes. It is pop—a movie about growing pains and ephemeral feelings. Crises are only momentarily scandalous; subsequent anger is meant to dissipate to serenity as quickly as the clouds overhead.
Necessity (i.e., funding) being the mother of invention, the filmmakers conceive of a form of “factual” fictional cinema that went on to fundamentally change film culture in succeeding decades when it emerged in Italy as neorealism and in France as the New Wave. Like films of those movements, it begins with a simple scenario: two sets of strangers spend a day together.
They are Erwin Splettstösser, who the film tells us “drives taxi 1A 10088” as he reaches over to admit a fare, and Brigitte Borchert, salesperson at a record shop, who “sold 150 copies of ‘In a Little Pastry Shop’ last month” and is seen in front of a display window. There is Wolfgang von Waltershausen, who gets up to much, including “officer, farmer, used book seller, taxi dancer, and … travelling wine salesman,” rakishly writing a note while dangling a cigarette from his lips; and Christl Ehlers, who “wears out her shoes as a film extra,” gamely entering a building in hopes of landing a part; as well as (outside the two groups, but attached to the taxi driver) Annie Schreyer, “a fashion model” who’s depicted in anxious recline, filing her nails.
“These five people had never appeared in front of a camera before,” the titles tell us. “Today, they’re all back at their own jobs.”
The “documentary” aspects of People on Sunday command our attention, and it is by design, as the titles state: “Film 1929 presents its first experiment, ‘People on Sunday: a film without actors.’” The camerawork is clearly influenced by artful treatments of factual material happening in films of its day (city symphonies, themselves influenced by both newsreel and politics abroad) and the film captures scenes of city life and intersecting busy-ness in hectic Dziga Vertov style: the bustling of commuters, the sweeping of trash, the wiping of children’s cheeks, the washing of cars. It then settles on its initial encounter, a woman-man “meet cute” at a train stop, followed by café, where, after a laugh, they come up with an idea: to meet for an outing on Sunday.
The plan is initiated in a way that is not unlike the production itself, which—according to sources gathered and translated for Criterion Collection’s expansive People on Sunday booklet—all parties agree began at Berlin’s Romanisches Café with a cast and crew of twenty-somethings. Robert Siodmak claims in his 1980 memoir that all involved abandoned him and cameraman Eugen Schüfftan (the oldest of the bunch, in his thirties), who filmed largely on their own. Non-actress actress Brigitte Borchert confirms that at least in part when she says in the making-of documentary that the script was improvised on a day-to-day basis. Billy Wilder said at the time that they did work from a script, but it was only a handful of pages.
Wilder eloquently stated the aim of the movie they wanted to make in an article of the era for Tempo, calling it “a very very simple story, quiet but full of the kinds of melodies that ring in our ears every day. No gags, no elaborate punch lines. Even at the risk of ‘lacking any trace of dramatic law.’”
And so they did. They created a low-budget fact- fiction hybrid mix that, most importantly for its time, thumbed its nose at big-budgeted style and dramatic, scripted Expressionist excess they associated with German studios.
People on Sunday was more than just an auspicious start for Wilder, who went on to become Billy, and Hollywood famous, as well as the Siodmaks, cinematography “assistant” (!) Fred Zinnemann, and codirector Ulmer, who later all perforce found their success overseas. Christl Ehlers, too, had to flee Hitler’s Germany for Spain and eventually also settled in the U.S. The horrors that ensued turn this Sunday on its head.
But if the film exists now as a fascinating artifact, a cherished relic rescued from the dust bin, it’s also impossible to miss that People on Sunday began as a frolic. It’s incredible entertainment, and it’s also the bittersweet document of a cultural moment no one realized was ending so soon. It gives us one gorgeous weekend, an artful accomplishment, and an urgent warning for today’s portentous times—to take joy where you find it.
Presented at SFSFF 2018 with live music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra