Criterion // 1930 // 73 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 28th, 2011
A film that would influence generations of film artists around the world.
At the beginning of People on Sunday, we're introduced to five real-life individuals: a taxi driver named Erwin Splettstosser, a record seller named Brigitte Borchert, a wine seller named Wolfgang van Waltershausen, a film extra named Christi Ehlers, and a model named Annie Schreyer. Over the course of a lazy Sunday in pre-depression Berlin, four of these individuals will hang out together and engage in series of pleasant activities and romantic entanglements.
The plot description I've provided might make People on Sunday sound terribly dull, particularly considering that the film is silent and doesn't contain much in the way of broad slapstick comedy or intense personal drama. The film is merely a portrait of a few people going about their lives on a Sunday in Weimar-era Berlin, but that's precisely what makes it so valuable and so enchanting. The movie is transporting in a way that a conventional film could not have been, as it focuses on delivering a thoughtful slice-of-life without burdening itself with conventional dramatic concerns. Audiences of the era were delighted to see real life captured so enchantingly when the film was first released, and today the film gives viewers an opportunity to take a peek at what an ordinary day might have been like in this particular place in this particular time period.
There's a warm, sunlit quality to People on Sunday that makes it immensely watchable during moments that might have seemed forgettable on paper; a playful sense of humanity that bleeds into every frame. The tone is enjoyably risqué at times, as the simple activities (swimming, going on a picnic, wandering the beach, etc.) of the men and women depicted in the film are underscored by a barely concealed air of carnal desire (much of the film's gentle humor springs from this region). The film was unconventional in its use of sketched plotting and nonprofessional actors to begin with, but there is also a refreshing willingness to wander away from our characters at times to observe the charms of the world they inhabit (there's a brilliant montage in which we watch a photographer take pictures of assorted beach visitors on a Sunday afternoon).
As I've indicated, the film holds up quite well on its own terms and is a rather pleasurable experience, but it is perhaps best-known as a significant event in cinematic history. The effect of People on Sunday can still be felt in some areas of cinema today, as the film explored elements that would later come to dominate Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave (which in turn produced elements that would affect other areas of cinema). There's a level of naturalism in the performances that was rarely seen in films of the era in any country; an element that has permitted this 1930 effort to age very gracefully indeed.
Equally significant is the fact that People on Sunday marked a gathering of young German filmmakers who would later go on to become well-known figures in Hollywood. While the specifics of who did what is still hotly-debated to this day (almost everyone took primary credit for the film's success at some point), the picture was directed by Robert Siodmak (The Killers, The Spiral Staircase), Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour, Strange Illusion), and Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, A Man For All Seasons) and boasted a screenplay by Billy Wilder (who of course would eventually become one of Hollywood's great writer/directors with films like Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment). They were all just beginning their long film careers, but People on Sunday is a film that offers sparkling early traces of the greatness these figures would eventually achieve.
People on Sunday arrives on Blu-ray sporting an acceptable 1080p/Full Frame transfer. The film is more than 80 years old, so some scratches, flecks and flickering are only to be expected, I suppose. This certainly isn't as polished as the great transfer Fritz Lang's M received from Criterion, but it's decent. A few moments look a little blown-out at times, but detail is sturdy and black levels are impressive. Of course this is a silent film, but there are two soundtracks offered for your listening pleasure. The first is a brand-new conventional silent film soundtrack by the Mont Alto Orchestra, and the second is a considerably more modern score written in 2000 by Elena Kats-Chernin. While I think Kats-Chernin's score is the more nuanced, compelling effort on its own terms, the Mont Alto Orchestra track seems a smoother fit with the visuals of the film (though that's partially because the score tends to comment on the action more directly). Both are impressive efforts worth checking out.
The extras are highlighted by "Weekend am Wannsee" (30 minutes), a 2000 documentary featuring interviews with Curt Siodmak and Brigitte Borchert. It's a compelling watch that does a nice job of placing the film in its proper historical context (even while it amusingly continues the debate on who did what, exactly). Also included is Ins Blaue hinein (36 minutes), a short film directed by People on Sunday's cinematographer Eugen Schufftan. While it isn't as compelling as the primary feature, it is a tonally similar sound-era piece that proves an enjoyable addition. You also get the usual Criterion booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Noah Isenberg and some reprints by Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak.
People on Sunday is an important piece of cinema history that film buffs need to check out, but it's also a very amiable little movie that still proves capable of providing loads of smiles. Criterion's release does this significant slice of early German cinema justice.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Silent, Music Only)
Running Time: 73 Minutes
Release Year: 1930
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Film