People On Sunday, Blu-ray [1930/2011]

by | Jun 27, 2011 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

People On Sunday, Blu-ray [1930/2011]

Made by young German filmmakers Robert Siomak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann, with a cast of nonprofessionals
Studio: Praesens-Film AG/The Criterion Collection 569 [6/28/11]
Video: 1.33:1 B&W
Audio: Silent, but choice of two music tracks: silent-era-style by Mont Alto quintet or modern one of music by Elena Kats-Chernin, performed by Czech Film Orchestra
Subtitles: German intertitles; English subtitles
Extras: “Weekend am Wannsee” – 2000 documentary about the film – interview with Curt Siodmak & star Brigitte Borchert; “Ins Blaue hinein” – 30-min. 1931 short by Eugen Schüfftan – cinematographer of People On Sunday; New English subtitle translation; Ilustrated booklet with essay by film scholar Noah Isenberg and comments by Billy Wilder & Robert Siodmak
Length: 73 minutes
Rating: ****

Talk about a watershed film…People On Sunday was an experiment film carried out against all odds by a group of young German filmmakers with almost no money, little time, not much experience, much bad weather, and with a cast totally made up of nonprofessionals mostly playing themselves. Yet the film was a big success in Berlin and went on to influence generations of film artists worldwide. However, in spite of its being enjoyable viewing in this thoroughly-researched and beautifully restored Criterion release, it reminded me of some important watershed musical works in both serialist and musique concrete genres which hardly anyone listens to anymore.

The idea for the film came together among a group of friends at a Berlin coffeehouse. They wanted to show Berlin in a similar way to the documentary Symphony of a Great City, made a couple years before. But they wanted to blend documentary and fictional styles. They followed some ordinary working Berliners to see how they spent their time when they weren’t working. The final cast consisted of a girl who worked in a shop selling gramophones and records, a taxi driver, a wine salesman, and so on – each one playing pretty much themselves. These city dwellers plan an outing to one of the lakes where people go swimming in Berlin in the summer. There is some flirting and interesting exchanges between the two women friends and two men pals. Nothing earth-shaking ever happens – it struck me as just a light enjoyable view of how young people enjoyed their sunny Sunday in Weimer-era Berlin – before everything went to hell. The only scene even suggesting any violence is the accidental breaking of one of the 78s the young people take on their outing with a portable gramophone. However, one of the Dutch film restorers (the best remaining footage of the original film was stored in Holland) talks bout People On Sunday as being terribly nihilistic and cynical – in the style of the Kurt Weill tune Mack The Knife (on one of the two soundtracks provided). I can’t say I felt that.

The recent extras interview with the lady who played one of the two main girls in the film belies the opportunism of several of the young men filmmakers, who often tried to take credit for making the film.  (One said that Billy Wilder had only spent about an hour on the whole film.) The half-hour short shot by the film’s cinematographer clearly grew out of People On Sunday, but its story is less realistic and enjoyable. After the huge success of the film, one of those involved immediately was hired by the major Berlin film studio UFA, while most of the others (being Jewish) found their way to first France and then Hollywood. I found a page on the Net which in some ways even trumps this fine 2011 reissue of the 1930 film.  It was a UCLA Summer School film project in Cologne, Germany, in which during the six-week school American and German film students worked together on a new four-part feature inspired by People On Sunday, but shooting in Cologne. The status of the resulting film was not explained.

 — John Sunier

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