In retrospect, of course, it was an all-star production. But back in 1929 when a small group of German and Austrian cineastes living in Berlin conceived the project that was to become People on Sunday, none of the participants had yet to make their mark on film culture. Co-directed by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, scripted by Billy (then Billie) Wilder, and filmed by Eugen Schüfftan (who would later win an Oscar for his cinematography on The Hustler) and Fred Zinnemann, People on Sunday was conceived as a one-off independent production. Organized by avant-garde theater producer—and later Holocaust victim—Moriz Seeler, the film was originally to be helmed by veteran director Rochus Gliese, but after his abrupt departure, the project was turned over to Siodmak and Ulmer, neither of whom had directed a film before, and cast with a group of local nonprofessionals who were charged with enacting versions of themselves.
Accounts differ as to which of the talents involved on the project were responsible for what, but the production seems to have been largely cobbled together on the fly, relying on a good amount of improvisation from cast and crew alike. Conceived as a cross between the non-narrative city film exemplified by Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera and, closer to home, Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, and the lightly plotted excursion film, of which the preeminent example to date was probably Paul Fejos’s Lonesome, People on Sunday juxtaposes the anonymous and the personal, providing a portrait of Berlin as embodied by its citizens.
Charting a tension between the narrative and the non-narrative, as segments detailing the events befalling the five central characters alternate with lengthy montages of quotidian city life, the film also navigates a dichotomy of active and passive. While this latter duality is most visibly expressed in the contrast between the shots of city workers (street cleaners, lamplighters) and the main figures out for their day of leisure, the split is never clear-cut. Sometimes the individuated characters, amid their relaxation, are deeply engaged in performing specific tasks. Other times, the surrounding townspeople take time out from their hectic lives to simply goof off and do nothing in particular.
Opening with a virtuoso presentation of the bustle of the city center, shot from a dizzying array of angles and emphasizing movement above all, the film locates a quiet center amid the chaos as two relatively aimless characters come together and the man induces the woman to join him at a cafe where they make plans for a lakeside excursion. The film then cuts to a cramped apartment where another woman (identified as a model) lazes in bed, the shot lit somewhat hazily, as a ray of light carves a chiaroscuro across her body. By contrast, her cabdriver boyfriend, who returns from work at the beginning of the scene, is all business. As he devours his dinner with a sense of active purpose, the filmmakers shoot him in a bold wide-angle composition with his heavy face dominating the foreground. Cutting between the two characters with the different styles of framing, Siodmak and Ulmer emphasize not only the lack of communication between the two, but visually establish the pattern of alternating activity and passivity that is to play out throughout the film’s central sequence.
The party for the lakeside excursion winds up consisting of a foursome, their relations marked by shifting romantic tensions. The café couple is present, but the woman, Christl, unexpectedly brings along her best friend, a record store clerk named Brigitte. The man, Wolfgang, brings along his own best friend, cab driver Erwin, who shows up alone, his lazy girlfriend unable to rouse herself from bed. As they proceed to the seaside, Wolfgang makes his play for Christl, but, initially rejected, turns his attention to the more receptive Brigitte, much to the dismay of the latter’s friend.
But mostly, their trip is a study in activity both idle (lazing in the water) and concentrated (setting up a record player, cooking sausages). The actions of the core group are continually set against the wider movements of their fellow city-dwellers which, like those of the main characters, are alternatively idle and purposeful. In addition, the filmmakers draw upon a variety of advanced film techniques to portray a picture of the city—and its peripheral lakes—as both vibrant and fragmented. Whether it’s an Eisensteinian succession of heroic glimpses of a public statue or a series of tracking shots taken from moving trains, the film is everywhere marked by a technical virtuosity and a cineaste’s savvy.
But the filmmakers are also attuned to the calm of the intimate as the narrative slowly wends its way toward its tender central moments. The film’s romantic consummation, presented tentatively at first and largely implied, nonetheless represents the movie’s definitive demonstration of the purposeful, sex standing as the supreme example of the active. That the aftermath of the fulfillment returns us to passivity and finally to a troubled uncertainty marks the film with a deeply entrenched sadness. The characters, their day in the sun over, have nothing left to do but retreat to the routine of daily life and back to the anonymity of the crowd as they wait out the week for the promise of another Sunday.
The transfer, based on a 1997 restoration, looks pleasingly sharp, the blacks and whites crisply differentiated and nary an imperfection in sight. The two scores—one "silent-style," one more modern—are cleanly recorded.
Rather slim pickings for a Criterion set, the extras include a lively 1931 short by People on Sunday cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan and Gerald Koll's 30-minute documentary on the making of the film, "Weekend am Wannsee," which provides just enough background to be useful. The booklet features a so-so essay by Noah Isenberg and accounts of the production by Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak.
The first entry in Ulmer's wonderfully odd filmography, People on Sunday will appeal to far more than just fans of the Black Cat auteur.