One Scene

The Sun on Their Faces: One Scene from People on Sunday

“Smile, please,” the photographer commands. He hovers behind his big box camera, one hand raised like the blade of a guillotine ready to fall. A young boy hesitates for a moment, unsmiling, then complies with a grin. The photographer’s hand falls; a shutter opens for a split second; the boy’s face, grinning and squinting against the sun, is sliced out of the flow of time and stamped in black and white. Another, even younger boy can’t stop laughing; he squirms and giggles and beams with irrepressible mischief; then, suddenly, he makes a funny face, sucking in his cheeks, and it is this goofy mask that the camera captures for all time. In this sequence, near the middle and at the heart of People on Sunday (1930), we watch day-trippers at the beach having their pictures taken. One is a woman with straight black bangs and the fine lines of middle age beginning to bite into her plain face. She smooths her hair and tilts her head back expertly, so that the image fixed is one of sultry invitation, stylish and bold.

The invention of photography spawned a new level of self-consciousness. People always posed for portraits, but a painting or a sculpted bust reveals an artist’s skill and interpretation as much as how the subject actually looked. When you’re photographed, however, you feel responsible for creating your own image. You suspect that the camera is the ultimate judge of your appearance, the court of last appeal. It is reassuring to know that even an intellectual heavyweight like Roland Barthes fretted about this. In Camera Lucida he describes how “I constitute myself in the process of posing . . . I transform myself in advance into an image,” and he pinpoints the precise insecurity of the non-photogenic, complaining, “I don’t know how to work upon my skin from within . . . what I want, in short, is that my (mobile) image, buffeted among a thousand shifting photographs, altering with situation and age, should always coincide with my ‘profound’ self.”

The photography scene in People on Sunday illustrates that moment of transition from mobile image to fixed portrait; it shows people constituting themselves in the process of posing, their faces revealing the anxious effort to work upon their skin from within, to summon up their “profound self.” It is a playful experiment, a jeu d’esprit, like the rest of this fresh and charming film—a semidocumentary following four young Berliners on a Sunday outing, independently made by a group of young men who would go on to become major players in Hollywood: the directors Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann, with the cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan. But this two-minute interlude is also a miniature essay on the experience of being photographed, and a visual treatise on the relationship between still and moving pictures. It is precisely structured. First, we see each of the subjects in motion, preparing themselves, culminating in a single freeze-frame that represents the resulting photograph. Then the process is reversed: frozen images come back to life, the shutter closes and time flows on. This stopping and starting lays out clearly the distinction between the duration and fluidity of moving pictures and the decisive singularity of still pictures. We see what the portraitist’s camera doesn’t capture, the moments of hesitation, uncertainty, contradictory expressions that are obliterated by the one final shot.

As the scene continues, faces flash past, all in motion now, confronting us head-on with their raw realness: thin, fat, old, young, homely, imperfect. This montage then gives way to a sequence of stills, perhaps the pictures the photographer uses to advertise his services: smooth, plump young couples, heavily made-up and retouched, in cloyingly romantic poses suggesting Valentines or chocolate boxes. This contrast seems to argue for the movie camera’s honesty over the portraitist’s carefully constructed deceptions. “It is the artist who tells the truth and photography that lies,” Auguste Rodin declared. “For in reality, time does not stand still.”

But who can resist the lie of photography? It says that time is made up of discrete moments, the way a film is made up of separate frames, and that the camera can pluck these moments and keep them, like pebbles salvaged from the wreck of the surf. This is why Berliners on a Sunday at the beach in 1929 line up to face the camera, to have their ordinary faces inscribed by the summer sun, to grab a piece of time to take home with them.

A little earlier in the film there is another digression, a tongue-in-cheek montage of grandiose monuments—huge marble lions, giant statesmen in baroque wigs—and elderly men solemnly contemplating them. The ebullient young filmmakers are lightly mocking reverence for the past. What they want to show is the transient, chaotic energy of the present: crowds moving aimlessly in shoals, trains zipping by, young people flirting, bickering, splashing in a lake, burning their mouths on frankfurters, running wildly around scrubby woodland hillsides.

The movie is introduced as “a film without actors,” and it is noted of the main players, “These five appeared before a camera for the first time in their lives.” They are modern young urbanites: a movie extra, a salesgirl in a record shop, a taxi driver, a traveling salesman. Though the slightest thread of a story enters with a triangle between the wolfish salesman and the two girls, leading to some glancing hints of jealousy and disappointment, overall the film remains faithful to the ebb and flux of quotidian reality. The players, indeed, do not visibly act or emote. They are not staged, shot, or lit like the stars of a studio film. There is something moving about the delicate and erratic natural light, for instance the flickering brightness reflected up from the glasses on a sidewalk café table onto the faces of two strangers who have just met.

The only movie stars in the film appear in glamour portraits tacked all over the walls of the apartment that the taxi driver shares with his girlfriend, an impressively lazy model. (She sleeps through the whole day that the others spend romping outdoors.) When they are irritated with each other, the couple fights vicariously through these totems: he flicks a blob of shaving cream on Ramon Navarro, she retaliates by taking a curling iron to Greta Garbo, and they escalate to methodically ripping each other’s favorites off the wall and tearing them to shreds. It’s a very funny scene, with a comic premise that depends on the status of movie star portraits as literal icons, images that wield power.

Photographs play many roles in movies. Most often they serve simple plot purposes, like the framed portraits on desks or pianos that stand in for absent characters. Sometimes they share the screen with the people they depict, creating an ironic counterpoint: the grossly enlarged picture that looms behind Charles Foster Kane as he gives his disastrous stump speech in Citizen Kane; or the absurdly beautiful, marmoreal image of Buster Keaton that winds up plastered on a billboard Wanted poster in the short comedy The Goat (1921), and in front of which Keaton himself enacts a silent aria of slapstick befuddlement. Sometimes their impact is almost mystical. In the second half of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), a photograph of the now deceased protagonist Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) hangs at his wake. As various characters recount memories of him, the film becomes a series of flashbacks; each time it returns to the present, the camera comes back to the photograph, which seems each time to have grown more expressive, more potent. As Watanabe’s secret triumph is revealed, an inner radiance seems to build and spill out from the wise, sad eyes in the picture. But the static image also reminds us each time that its subject is gone, that his story is completed and only his memory, already shading into myth, remains.

With the insertion of photographs or freeze-frames, movies come full circle, summoning that power that they willingly forfeited: to make time stand still. Yet the process isn’t fully reversed; when they appear in movies, photographs lose some of that quality of standing outside of time. In real life you can look at them for as long as you choose, come back to them as often as you like—only you will have changed. But in a film they are governed by time just like everything else. Freeze-frames likewise suggest a halt to the film but remain, like rests in a musical score or ellipses in a sentence, embedded in the flow. They can end movies with a bang, as in The Philadelphia Story, where the characters are arrested by a paparazzo’s flash; or The 400 Blows, where the young protagonist is more mysteriously and ambiguously stopped in mid-flight. But even as they gesture toward finality, they tantalize with their brevity.

In People on Sunday, the beach-goers’ holiday snapshots sum up this paradox. The promise of photographs is permanence; these pictures will be framed on mantels, carried by soldiers and emigrants, passed on to descendants who never knew the subjects when they were alive. But each picture is on the screen for only a second or two; they vanish almost before you can grasp them. To watch a movie shot in 1929 and see people long dead frolicking in the sun creates a dizzying collision of the ephemeral and the immortal. That this film captures a seemingly carefree Berlin a few years before the rise of Hitler adds to the poignancy: how many of these buildings will be bombed into rubble, how many of these people will die violently, or embrace the Nazis? Of the mainly Jewish young men who made the film, all would escape Germany but one: theater impresario Moriz Seeler, who helped produce the film and was credited as lighting technician, died in a concentration camp. People on Sunday, with its shoestring origins among a bunch of amateurs who became cinematic eminences, is at once a spontaneous improvisation and a graven artifact—as fleeting and as endless as a summer day.

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