People On Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag)

Germany (1930) Dirs. Robert Siodmak & Edgar G. Ulmer

It is generally accepted the beginnings of the Neo-realism movement are found in the works of Vittorio De Sica and 1940’s Italian cinema but like most developments in film, the Germans got there first! This experimental outing from 1930 not only used non-professional actors but was also noted for its soon-to-be famous crew.

People On Sunday was part of the New Objectivity movement of the 1920’s in response to the whimsy and visual ostentation of Expressionism in German art. A group of young Berliners got together to make self-funded, low budget films of themselves reflecting everyday life as it is and not an overt fantasy version of it. Subtitled “A Film Without Actors”, the cast is made of up of ordinary people with no acting experience, a title card noting they were all back in their day jobs when it was released.

Taking its cues from Russia’s Man With A Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov we get to see the daily hustle and bustle of pre-Hitler Berlin but with a concentrated storyline to drive it. Shot over a number of Sundays during the Summer of 1929, there are five principal characters in this tale – wine seller Wolfgang (Wolfgang von Waltershausen) film extra Christl (Christl Ehlers), taxi driver Erwin (Erwin Splettstößer), his model girlfriend Annie (Annie Schreyer) and record seller Brigitte (Brigitte Borchert).

One busy Saturday, Wolfgang notices Christl standing alone at the subway having been stood up and takes her for ice cream. Enjoying the day, Christl accepts Wolfgang’s offer to go to the beach the next day. Meanwhile Erwin and Anna, who suffers from extreme fatigue, argue over going to the cinema and end up not going. Wolfgang drops in to their tiny apartment and suggests the beach trip to them which they agree.

Come Sunday morning Anna is so exhausted she fails to wake up so Erwin leaves without her but luckily for him Christl brought her best friend Brigitte with her, feeling a bit cautious about Wolfgang. It turns out Christl was correct as Wolfgang flirts with Brigitte after Christl refuses a kiss which puts her in a sour mood, although Erwin is not exactly a consolation prize for her either.

That is essentially the gist of the story, the two men being general pigs and the women being daft enough to let them, interspersed with footage of real happenings on the streets of Berlin, the beach and the surrounding areas. The comparisons to Vertov’s film is in how the real Berlin is captured for prosperity on film but not as a tiresome holiday film but with a sense of purpose behind each snapshot that can be looked back on with a sense of wonder.

For instance, the beach activities could have been shot in any country and the recognition of many of the scenarios and the general vibe would be universal – mothers playing with their naked toddlers in the water, young men showing of their swimming prowess to the ladies, families of all ages sitting around together under the sun or the shade, it’s all there and familiar to all of us.

A photographer shoots portraits of the willing, from giggling babies to shy women, snooty men to lovestruck teens and semi-reluctant whole families in what is arguably the most fascinating scene, purely because these again were real members of the public sharing their day out and themselves, warts and all for general consumption on the big screen. It’s scary to think that baby could be 90 years-old today or maybe even dead!

Elsewhere we see a group of young men playing a bizarre game when one is bent over and smacked on the bottom and he has to guess which one was the culprit. I’m saying nothing except they seemed to enjoy it a lot! A brass band can be seen playing, shot from a distance and behind a bush to suggest permission wasn’t given; it’s just as well this was a silent film so copyright issues over the music are also avoided!

Back to the drama of the main quartet and it seems no matter how hard she tries, Christl can’t win Wolfgang back from Brigitte which spoils her day. In one scene, Wolfgang and Brigitte end up alone in a clearing and they gaze into each other’s eyes – the camera then tracks away showing trees and other localised sights before returning to Wolfie doing his shirt buttons up as a relaxed Brigitte lays on the grass.

For an experimental film the presentation isn’t particularly challenging in that respect with this last scene being the most daring piece of symbolism, but the innovation appears in other areas, such as the water level shots of people swimming and of course in the use of non-professional actors. This creates a sense of naturalism that can’t be faked, thus when they do “act” it shows but not dramatically so that the performances can be called bad.

But the real point of curiosity for film buffs is in the filmmakers behind this project, most of whom fled Germany to avoid Hitler and ended up enjoying successful careers in Hollywood. This was the directorial debut of Robert Siodmak, who co-wrote the (mostly improvised) script with his brother Curt and one Billy Wilder! Co-director Edgar G. Ulmer became a B-movie horror director in the US whilst the cameraman here was future Oscar winner Fred Zinnemann!

That is a heck of a pedigree to be found in a 72-minute curio that most people probably aren’t even aware exists but everyone has to start somewhere, and for these future legends that is here. You might not be able to see their unique styles in any nascent form, except perhaps the camerawork, but from a historical perspective this is quite the document to behold.

People On Sunday stands not just as a slice of nostalgia for the Germans but a solid reminder that Hitler’s loss in driving these filmmakers away was cinema’s eternal gain.