on 24 January 2010
This is a movie well worth investigating and makes an ideal companion piece to Walter Ruttman's 1927 classic "Berlin, Symphony of a Great City".
Both came towards the end of the silent era, amid the explosion of creativity and experimentation which marked the tumultuous Weimar years and offer a visual feast of candid images, of life in Berlin immediately before the dawning of the Third Reich.
Whereas Ruttman's film is a montage depicting the city as a living, breathing organism, through the juxtaposition of industrial machinery, light, traffic and the movement of people as they go about their daily routine, Robert Siodmak's "Menschen am Sonntag" (which is also credited to Billy Wilder among other notables) follows four young Berliners who escape the tedium of their working week by spending a day together at the Nikolassee on the edge of the city.
"People on Sunday announces itself as a 'film without actors': the five principals are all amateurs, who actually worked in the jobs described in the film: taxi driver, music shop assistant, wine salesman, film extra, mannequin. Yet their performances are strikingly natural and unselfconscious. Since they all had weekday jobs, the film was shot over a number of Sundays during the summer of 1929, and the sense of unforced credibility must derive from the fact that these were exactly what the title says - ordinary Berliners on their day off, doing pretty much what they would have been doing in any case." (Philip Kemp, DVD liner notes).
A certain degree of sexual tension inhabits this movie, as one might expect given the initial scenario: Taxi driver Erwin lives in an apparently tumultuous relationship with model Annie who can't quite make it out of bed to enjoy the promise of an adventure by the lake. Their mutual friend, Wolf, the travelling wineseller (what a cad!) has however just struck up a friendship on the street (his pick-up routine must be seen to be believed!) with film extra Christl and, well, why not a double date then? The four of us? And Annie if she can make it, but I doubt it.
And so the day by the Nikolassee unfolds, with its flirtations, calamities, jealousies, petty squabbles and occasional hilarity.
But it is also the context for all of this which makes the film so important: here not far from the cusp of a massive social and political upheaval are a million picture postcard images of the life of the common man, woman and child as they go about their lives, away from the mind-numbing grind of the working week. Background images neither scripted nor posed, principal characters moving fluidly and purposefully through the place and the time. They are a part of that real world, not pasted to it. And importantly, these scenes would have been played out too throughout the immediate pre-war years and beyond, so this picture of life as it was lived by urban dwellers is equally relevant to students of the National Socialist years.
All too quickly though the weekend ends. Some relationships may have permanently shifted. The working week, with its inevitability and its tedium now await. But so too once again will there be the tantalising promise of further reward and release. "Maybe next week, Wolf?"
The (2000) soundtrack, composed by Elena Kats-Chernin and performed by the Czech Film Orchestra is an outstanding one, and is available on iTunes. (As is another version, under the English title "People on Sunday", but it is quite different. I'd stick with the film version).
Berlin, Symphony of a Great City is available through IHF.
For a comprehensive and thoroughly absorbing overview of all things Weimar, Erik D Weitz's "Weimar Germany, Promise and Tragedy" (Princeton University Press, 2007) is an ideal starting point.