People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag)

Director: Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay: Billy Wilder (from reportage by Curt Siodmak)
Stars: Erwin Splettstösser (Himself), Brigitte Borchert (Herself), Wolfgang von Waltershausen (Himself), Christl Ehlers (Herself), Annie Schreyer (Herself), Kurt Gerron (Himself), Valeska Gert (Herself), Heinrich Gretler (Himself), Ernö Verebes (Himself)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1930
Country: Germany
People on Sunday Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
People on SundayWere it not for the men involved behind the camera, People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag), a low-budget, mostly improvised experiment in mixing documentary aesthetics with a fictional narrative, would likely be a forgotten film. Made independently in the shadow of the massive Weimar-era German film industry, which at the end of the 1920s was in constant financial trouble due to the massive budgets of such epic films as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), People on Sunday is utterly unpretentious without being slight, even as it draws on silent-era masters like Sergei Eisenstein and presages the stripped down aesthetics, location shooting, flow-of-life storytelling, and use of nonactors that would come to define Italian neorealism and the French New Wave.

Rarely if ever has a single film been made a group of amateurs all of whom went on to become important cinematic figures. The only established person behind the camera was cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, who, at 36, was the oldest person in the group by nearly a decade. Yet, even though Schüfftan had six years of experience in the film industry designing special visual effects for films like Metropolis and Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), this was his first time acting as a cinematographer. It would hardly be his last, though, as he worked on dozens of films over the next four decades, eventually winning an Oscar for The Hustler (1961). Schüfftan was assisted by 22-year-old Fred Zinnemann, who went on to direct such Hollywood classics as High Noon (1950), From Here to Eternity (1953), and A Man for All Seasons (1966). Although various historical accounts suggest that People on Sunday was essentially “directed” by everyone involved, credit went to Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, who were respectively 28 and 24. Both men eventually emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s and became influential Hollywood directors who worked successfully in numerous genres, including film noir and horror (Siodmak’s high point is arguably 1946’s The Killers with Burt Lancaster, while Ulmer first made his mark with Universal’s bizarre Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff mash-up The Black Cat in 1934). Screenwriting duties were given to a 23-year-old journalist named Billy Wilder, who was perhaps the most successful of the group once he got to Hollywood, directing such unrivaled classics as Double Indemnity (1944), Ace in the Hole (1951), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960).

While the collective filmographies of its young makers always threatens to overshadow People on Sunday, the film itself stands on its own as a unique aberration that, while not having a great deal of direct influence on future cinematic developments, nevertheless helped chart a path then rarely taken. The film’s primary experiment was the mixing of documentary and fictional narrative, which allowed the filmmakers to capture the daily life of Weimar-era Berlin in all its bustling glory while also drawing us into the lives of fictional characters played by nonactors using their real names and professions. The story focuses on a quartet of city dwellers who spend a leisurely Sunday at Wannsee Lake, a recreation area just outside of Berlin. It begins with the chance encounter between Wolfgang von Waltershausen, a confident wine salesman, and Christl Ehlers, who works in a record shop. They decide to meet the next day for a casual outing; Christl brings along her best friend Brigitte Borchert, who works as a film extra, while Wolfgang brings his best friend Erwin Splettstösser, a taxi driver whose live-in girlfriend, a model named Annie Schreyer, stays at home to sleep. That set-up allows the filmmakers to follow the naturalistic unfolding of the day, as the youthful foursome spend their time swimming, listening to records, and discovering their various attractions to each other. The tone of the film is both lightly playful, buoyed by actual location work that is brimming with sunshine and cheer all around them, and cynical, as the interactions between the two sexes bring to the surface jealousy and competition, which climaxes with Wolfgang seducing Brigitte in the woods in a sexual encounter that is left off-screen, but is surprisingly frank in its intimations both before and after.

The loose nature of the storytelling and the lack of deep character development (the film is only 73 minutes long in its current state) makes People on Sunday feel a bit weightless, which is not surprising given that it was a largely improvised experiment in personal filmmaking. Schüfftan’s cinematography gives the film a more professional sheen than it otherwise might have had, while Siodmak and Ulmer display a strong visual sense that is informed by both the discordant editing patterns of Soviet montage and the so-called “New Objectivity” (Neue Sachlichkeit) in German cinema, which in the late 1920s was replacing the highly stylized surfaces of Expressionism with a focus on realism, both social and psychological. We never get to know much about the four central characters, but they function together as a collective archetype: a young, carefree generation of Germans who were, sadly and tragically, largely unaware of the looming development of National Socialism that would soon take hold of their country and change it forever. Looking at the film in hindsight, People on Sunday becomes a tragic portrait of the culture’s embrace of leisure and commercialization, which helped blind them to the horrors that were to come, a fact that is all the more tragic given that the film’s primary organizer, the poet and avant-garde theater producer Moriz Seeler, died in the Holocaust.

People on Sunday Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
People on Sunday is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioDTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
  • Weekend am Wannsee (2000) retrospective documentary
  • Ins Blaue hinein (1931) short film by Eugen Schüfftan
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Noah Isenberg and reprints by scriptwriter Billy Wilder and director Robert Siodmak
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 28, 2011

    After the negative had been lost and the film had been languishing in multiple versions in film archives around the world, People on Sunday was finally restored in 1997 by Martin Koerber of the Netherlands Filmmuseum (now known as the EYE Film Institute Netherlands). Koerber reassembled the film from half a dozen different prints, bringing it as close as is currently possible to the version that originally premiered in Berlin in 1930. Criterion’s new high-definition transfer was taken from a 35mm print struck from the restoration negative, digitally converted to the recommended 22 fps, and then given further digital restoration. The result is quite impressive, with an image that is generally sharp and clear with a minimal amount of age and wear for a film that is more than 80 years in age. There are, of course, some instances of vertical lines that couldn’t be erased without compromising the image, but the lack of warp, jitters, and dirt makes the film feel practically new. On the uncompressed stereo soundtrack, Criterion gives us two options: a silent-era-style score by the Mont Alto Orches­tra and a more modern score by Elena Kats-Chernin, performed by the Czech Film Orchestra, both of which sound clean and wonderful.
    There are only two supplements included on the disc, but both are well worth your time. For historical background on the film, Criterion has included Weekend am Wannsee (2000), Gerald Koll’s short documentary about the film’s production and restoration, which features interviews with restorationist Martin Koerber, star Brigitte Borchert, and writer Curt Siodmak. Throughout the documentary we get glimpses of the film pre-restoration, which only enhances our appreciation of what it looks like now. Also on the disc is Ins Blaue hinein (1931), a 36-minute short film directed by Eugen Schüfftan. The insert booklet includes an informative essay by film scholar Noah Isenberg, who has written extensively on Edgar G. Ulmer, and excerpts from interviews with scriptwriter Billy Wilder and director Robert Siodmak about the film’s origins and production.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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