Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Rating (out of 5): **** 1/2
It would be misleading (however accurate) to tout People on Sunday as a film from the makers of Detour, Sunset Boulevard, The Killers, and High Noon. Aside from technical grace, not too much about Sunday suggests the careers Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, and Fred Zinnemann (respectively) would have following this early effort.
Shot over six weeks without a script (despite the credits’ claim otherwise), the film details the exploits of young people living in Weimar Republic-era Berlin. People on Sunday proudly dubs itself a “film without actors” and is clearly an attempt to pick up where Walter Ruttman’s 1927 Berlin: Symphony of a Great City left off. Like the Ruttman film – and Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera, an influence acknowledged by Wilder – Sunday uses poetically edited documentary footage to capture the daily lives of working class urbanites. But where Ruttman and Vertov are a little more concerned with a mechanical, geometric rendering of city lives and landscapes, the makers of Sunday push sharp observations of human behavior, particularly between the sexes, to the foreground.
The story, such as it is, begins on a Saturday afternoon. Wine salesman Wolfgang strikes up a conversation with movie extra Christl, who’s waiting for a date who never shows. Wolfgang invites Christl to join him and his friend Erwin at the beach the following day. Christl complies and the three meet the following morning, accompanied by Christl’s friend, Brigitte.
The rest of the film follows the foursome as they frolic in the water, listen to a portable Victrola, and fall in and out of romantic pairings. The action is slight and languid, perfectly evocative of a day at the beach. For all of its directorial pedigree, the real star here is cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan (who would go on to lens such films as Port of Shadows, Eyes Without a Face and The Hustler, for which he won an Oscar). The film is a master class in shot composition, with each frame successfully meeting its proverbial thousand-word quota.
Roughly three years after People on Sunday's premiere, Adolf Hitler assumed chancellorship over Germany, making the flm an invaluable historical record of the brief period between the wars. However, it is not merely a museum piece. The film is bursting with the youthful creative energy of its makers (and cast).
People on Sunday is a remarkable achievement. Like many remarkable achievements, it must be considered within the canon, as a time capsule, as a sui generis accomplishment, as a forebear to other entertainments. To judge the piece on entertainment value alone, it might not register above the three-and-a-half star range (depending on your tolerance for these things). For those (like me) in favor of ethnographic time pieces and successful experiments that are conversant (or wanting to be conversant) with their history, cinematic and otherwise, it’s a must-see.
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