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People on Sunday: Young People Like Us

Shot in Berlin on the eve of the Great Depression with almost no budget, an equally modest cast of amateur actors, a relatively untested, unknown crew, and no major studio backing, the late silent film People on Sunday (1930) has a production history like no other. After seasoned director Rochus Gliese abruptly abandoned the project, owing to the lack of proper support, it was codirected by two budding filmmakers, Robert Siodmak, twenty-eight, and Edgar G. Ulmer, twenty-four, neither of whom had ever made a feature film. It was more or less scripted, though not in any formal sense, by a boyish Billy (then still Billie) Wilder, twenty-three, with input from Curt (then still Kurt) Siodmak, twenty-six. The camera was operated by veteran special effects technician Eugen Schüfftan, the old man of the bunch at thirty-six, with assistance from Fred Zinnemann, twenty-two, and the picture was produced by the coffeehouse collective Filmstudio 1929, a one-off production company cobbled together by crew members and theater impresario Moriz Seeler, and nominally underwritten by Nero-­Film boss Heinrich Nebenzahl (maternal uncle to brothers Robert and Curt Siodmak).

Almost every person associated with the film—most notably, Ulmer, the Siodmaks, and Wilder—would later, after migration to Hollywood and after the film’s cultural cachet had accrued over time, take considerably more credit for it than the historical record allows. In an interview in 1970, Robert Siodmak effectively denied the involvement of Wilder, insisting that he'd worked no more than an hour on the production, and claimed that Ulmer, after just a handful of days on the shoot, moved back to America, where he’d been working in the art department at Universal. For his part, Ulmer boasted to Peter Bogdanovich, in an interview that same year, that he’d “organized” the entire film and bankrolled it with money brought from America. Similarly, Wilder would tell Cameron Crowe that “we all directed it,” while Curt Siodmak maintains in his memoir, Wolf Man’s Maker, that the idea was his alone. In a 2000 television documentary on the making of the film, Weekend am Wannsee, Brigitte Borchert, who plays the girl from the Electrola shop, recalls, with perhaps less of a personal stake: “They didn’t have a script or anything . . . We’d sit at a nearby table while they’d decide what to do that day . . . It was completely improvised.”

That such a film was immediately greeted by critics with boundless enthusiasm, and has since been celebrated by film historians on both sides of the Atlantic, many of whom have seen it as presaging Italian neorealism and the French New Wave, has bestowed upon People on Sunday a certain aura. And the film’s vague origins—conceived during a series of impassioned conversations among the crew members, then scribbled onto napkins at Berlin’s Romanisches Café—and hazy production history only add to its mystique. At this point in time, though, long after the tales have been told and the legends printed, and with the film now firmly in the canon of Weimar cinema, People on Sunday deserves to be reappraised on its own very basic terms, to be seen both as a strangely pivotal, influential film and as the small gem that it is.

The premise couldn’t be any simpler: In the heart of the city, near the Bahnhof Zoo subway station, amid the intense bustle of commerce and street traffic, a modern boy-meets-girl story seems to be transpiring before our eyes. A chance encounter between two young, slightly aimless urban strollers results in a serendipitous scheme for a Sunday outing. When each shows up with a best friend in tow, however, the rendezvous becomes a frolicsome double date at one of Berlin’s nearby lakes. (A fifth member of the group, in a witty twist—ostensibly attributable to Wilder, who, according to a snarky Robert Siodmak, contributed nothing else—manages to oversleep and miss everything.) What ultimately unfolds over the mere hour or so of remaining screen time is a remarkably straightforward depiction, by turns affectionate and comical, of courting rituals, leisure activity, and mass entertainment circa 1930. We observe the four protagonists listening to music, swimming, enjoying a picnic, riding a pedal boat, alternating their love interests, and trying in general to squeeze the most out of their lazy day at the lake. The style of the film is natural, the setting unpretentious, and the atmosphere, perhaps the core of the project, shamelessly flirtatious. More than anything else, a new kind of directness, an unmediated, unvarnished representation of every­day life as experienced by members of a young, urban consumer class, is what the filmmakers seem to have been after, in defiant contrast to the spectacular big-budget pictures being produced by UFA at the time. One of the film’s most evocative working titles, in addition to So ist es und nicht anders (This Is How It Is, and No Different) and Sommer 29, was Junge Leute wie alle (Young People Like Us), a wink, perhaps, at the critics and  target audience.

In terms of its formal innovation, People on Sunday takes the city symphony film, most commonly associated in Germany with Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)—and internationally with Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926) and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), among others—in a new direction. Concerned with more than just capturing a Querschnitt, or cross section, of the metropolis, as Ruttmann had done in the experimental mode, the film cannily blends avant-garde documentary and narrative cinema into something that is less coldly abstract, more natural and more unabashedly romantic than its predecessors. While it continues to draw on the once dominant trend of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), with its visual riffs on popular advertising, design, photography, and technology, its main conceit is its utter resistance to prevailing modes and industry norms. The film turns its back on studio production, instead allowing the city and its many inviting locations (its boulevards and cafés, its lakes, boardwalks, beaches, and other places of leisure and recreation) to substitute for the standard sets, while at the same time allowing amateurs to play the kinds of roles otherwise reserved for film stars. It is, as we are told at the outset, “a film without actors.”

By casting amateurs in roles based on their true day jobs and with their real names attached to them, all from the minor professions of a burgeoning young, urban workforce, the filmmakers were able to offer an unusually honest, vérité rendering of their world, to an audience that was preoccupied with the same set of concerns, social mores, dreams, and anxieties. In the opening credits, following the announcement, via intertitle, that the film’s five lead characters appear here before the camera for the first time and are today back at their old jobs, we are imme­diately introduced to them in their respective pursuits: the jovial taxi driver Erwin Splettstösser, seated behind the wheel of a cab bearing the Berlin license plate IA 10088; the charming record salesgirl Brigitte Borchert, in front of the Electrola shop, who last month, so the title reads, sold 150 copies of the hit song “In einer kleinen Konditorei” (In a Little Pastry Shop); the tall, dark, and slender Wolfgang von Waltershausen, officer, farmer, used book seller, and taxi dancer, currently working as a traveling wine merchant, puffing on his cigarette with an air of obvious self-assuredness; the very chic, urbane Christl Ehlers, who enters what appears to be a casting studio and who, we are told, “wears out her shoes as a film extra”; and, finally, Annie Schreyer, a model, reclining, filing her nails, and waiting in vain for the next job.

In a manner not unlike the early Soviet avant-garde—Ulmer claimed that the chief inspiration came from Vertov—the film has its characters serve as a series of social types, easily recognizable to its audience. They participate actively in forming the very mass culture that they are representing on the screen, a culture with which the cinemagoers readily identified. “The five people in this film,” exclaimed Wilder in a publicity piece he published early on in the production, “that’s you and that’s me.” Admittedly, the film’s viewpoint, with its occasional flourishes of voyeurism, its unabashed prankster sensibility and boyish bravado, is quite masculine. The audience serves in part, then, as witness to Wolfgang and Erwin’s youthful exploits; from their chummy card game near the start of the film to the splitting of their last cigarette, their fraternal bonds are shown to run deep. Yet the leading women, whose roles shift and evolve throughout the picture, have their own complexity and individual force. They challenge their male counterparts, seeing through their stunts and standing their ground.

By dint of unusually good fortune, or perhaps good connections, the film enjoyed a well-publicized premiere at Berlin’s glamorous UFA-Theater am Kurfürstendamm on February 4, 1930, and was instantly embraced by critics from nearly all of the city’s leading newspapers. They pronounced it “a grand success,” “magnificent,” and “a delightful film.” One review, which declared the victory of the low-budget Filmstudio 1929 over the powerful entertainment industry (it lists the total production cost at twenty-eight thousand reichsmarks, just under seven thousand dollars at the time), hailed the film as “a triumph of the artistic element—proof that it works this way as well—a film made from crystal-clear simplicity.” The unnamed reviewer then went on to note, “Nothing actually happens, and yet it still captures that which has to do with all of us.” Many critics saw fit to trumpet the talent of the young crew. In the Berliner Zeitung, for instance, Kurt Mühsam observed, “Robert Siodmak and Edgar Ulmer wield the authority of a director with remarkable aplomb.” In the afternoon edition of the same paper, another critic asserted: “Billie Wilder has written a simple but outstandingly composed screenplay, Schüfftan has performed splendid work on the camera, and Robert Siodmak, together with Edgar Ulmer, has directed very competently.” Little did they know that all of these young upstarts would soon be bound for Hollywood.

Although the film was made at an especially fragile moment in history, between the recent stock market collapse and the rise of National Socialism, its lyricism evokes a strange sense of calm, purity, and innocence. The key concerns of the film, and of the film’s characters—fighting over matinee idols, burning one’s tongue on a hot dog, having one’s portrait taken by a beach photographer, scrounging together enough money to spring for a boat ride—are indeed rather trivial when compared with the grand historical events unfolding offscreen. This doesn’t, however, make it in any way detached from its times. Its sustained focus on such seemingly banal matters is entirely in keeping with the Weimar preoccupation with leisure and the still rather new notion of the “weekend.” Taken in this vein, People on Sunday stands as a commentary on such hit songs as “Wochenend und Sonnenschein” (Weekend and Sunshine) (Otto Stenzeel’s original score was replete with pop standards of the day) and on the vivid photo portraiture of August Sander (think of Schüfftan’s clever use of freeze-frame on the beach). It is also very much an exploration, in line with Siegfried Kracauer’s 1929 study of Weimar Germany’s white-collar workers, The Salaried Masses, of the new cultural habits of the petite bourgeoisie.

People on Sunday certainly tested the limits of filmmaking at the time. It broke new ground in the final phase of silent film production, introducing a fresh model of independent cinema (well before the term, as we understand it today, even existed) and a bare-bones realism that had a deep impact both con­temporaneously and for many years after. In the Berliner Tageblatt, the critic Eugen Szatmari took special delight in noting the ways People on Sunday undermined big-studio production: “Young people got together and, with laughably little means, without sets or ballrooms or opera galas, without stars, with a few human beings they drew from their professions, they shot a film and achieved a total success, for which one has to congratulate them and which hopefully will finally open up the eyes of the film industry.” Despite the fact that this group of twentysomething cineastes would not effect the change hoped for by Szatmari, either in Weimar Germany or in the Hollywood they fled to, the model they established with People on Sunday has continued to be emulated internationally, from the New Wave and New German Cinema up to the more systematic efforts in the name of Dogme 95. Even today, some eight decades after its debut, this love letter to Berlin still dazzles, just as it did that fateful winter of 1930.

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