People On Sunday (Menschen Am Sonntag) first published by Movie Gazette
Despite its title, People On Sunday actually begins on the day before. When taxi driver Erwin Splettstößer arrives home from work on Saturday evening, his partner, the languid model Annie Schreyer, wants to go to the cinema to see the latest Greta Garbo picture, but after the couple bickers, tearing up one another’s treasured postcards of movie stars, the evening out is aborted, and Erwin ends up drinking and playing cards with the caddish wine salesman Wolfgang von Waltershausen in the poky apartment.
While this sequence exhibits all the naturalism that will characterise the film to come, it is also artfully programmatic. Erwin’s preference for staying in rather than seeing a blockbuster reflects the film’s preference for the mundane over the spectacular; and the tearing up of the screen idols’ photos matches the film’s innovative rejection of the star system. For, in a move which would later have a profound influence on the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealists, People On Sunday features five non-actors effectively playing a scripted version of themselves – even retaining their own names and jobs.
The film, however, is not about these people’s life of work, but rather the activities (or non-activities) of their time off. While Annie spends the day in bed getting her beauty sleep, Erwin and Wolfgang go out on a date of sorts with film extra Christl Ehlers, whom Wolfgang chatted up the day before, and her friend, record shop salesgirl Brigitte Borchert. As the four swim at a lakeside beach, stroll through the woods, and flirt on a paddle boat, their understated adventures are intercut with footage of other recreation-seeking Berliners – until the day comes to an end and the working week begins again.
Emerging from an experimental movement known as Neue Sachlichkeit (or ‘New Objectivity’), the young filmmakers involved in People on Sunday (Robert and Curt Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinneman, Edgar G. Ulmer – all of whom went on to have illustrious careers in the industry) wove their drama from the ordinary details of life, in a novel blend of feature and documentary – yet so little actually happens in traditional narrative terms, and so unaffected are the performances, that it is easy to forget this is a feature at all, although impossible not to be charmed by these characters’ youthful clowning, courting and petty jealousies. The whole spirit of the enterprise is encapsulated in a central sequence in which people from all walks of life pose one-by-one in front of a beach photographer, their images then captured candidly in freeze frame (an effect not seen before this film) – for People on Sunday is precisely a series of snapshots of common-or-garden reality, in which anyone and everyone can have their day on screen.
For all its revolutionary invention, People on Sunday remains a timeless celebration of the meaningless pursuits that make life worth living – as well as an essential document, or ‘city symphony’, of Weimar-era Berlin.
Strap: This jaunty day-off in the Berlin sun is a city symphony full of artfully natural charms.
© Anton Bitel