Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) Reviews
It has been warm the last few days. In that border territory where you think it's hot if you're sensitive to heat but only think it's warm if you're sensitive to cold. I, as it happens, am sensitive to heat and have been hiding. It also means that it's difficult for me to concentrate on movies. However, the fact of this one isn't even that there isn't much to concentrate on, though there isn't. More to the point, this is exactly the sort of thing that I think about in weather like this. I'm willing to be that pretty much every park in town was filled with people "taking advantage of the weather" while I hid inside and watched [i]Murder, She Wrote[/i]. (What is it about that show that made even good actors so bad?) It makes me wonder a bit what temperature it was on the day when this film was set. I think a lovely, perfect day for all this is in the seventies, but a lot of people think that's too cold.
It is between the wars. The characters are supposed to be typical Berliners--none are actors, even, though one, Christl Ehlers, is an extra who only made one other movie--going about their typical lives. Erwin Splettstößer and Wolfgang von Waltershausen are a bit on the layabout side. Wolfgang picks up Christl. Erwin lives with Annie Schreyer, a model, but they are fighting. They tear up one another's pictures of movie stars and yell at one another over how she should be wearing the brim of her hat. Annie decides not to go with Erwin and Wolfgang to Nikolassee the next day, probably in part because she is unable to convince Erwin to go to the movies with her that day. On Sunday, Erwin and Wolfgang go to the park with Christl and her friend, Brigitte Borchert. They swim and picnic and gad about generally, while Annie just stays in bed. Neither man seems to worry about much other than themselves, and it's just another lazy Sunday in Berlin, though Monday always comes.
Okay, so I don't know for sure what Nikolassee looks like beyond what's shown here. The Wikipedia page isn't much help, and most of its references are in German. Therefore, I don't know if my automatic mental comparison to La Grande Jatte is accurate--though I don't really know what La Grande Jatte looks like, either. I know about Sondheim's version of it, just as I know the Curt Siodmak/Robert Siodmak/Billy Wilder version of Nikolassee. However, I think possibly that it doesn't matter. I spent many of my early childhood Saturdays at a park in Pasadena called Victory Park, where my dad and his friends shot off model rockets. There's no water at Victory Park, but that isn't entirely the point. All three are places where people go to pass an idle Sunday, just as all those people were probably swarming Marathon Park downtown today. I mean, there's water at Marathon Park, but you're not allowed into it. However, there's still picnicking and general gadding about wherever you are.
Of course, I also don't like either of our main male characters, but I strongly suspect I'm not supposed to. In later years, Billy Wilder wrote his fair share of self-centered male characters, to be sure, but the difference was that the ones we were supposed to like eventually learned better. I am not, I must confess, as familiar with the work of the Siodmak brothers, but never mind. I'm not sure we're supposed to have any admiration for the young men taking advantage of whatever women are unfortunate enough to become entangled with them. They live a seemingly pleasant, definitely laid-back life, but where are they going? You can't even trust their plans from one Sunday to the next; I have no reason to believe that they will be as good to the next young women they pick up as they could be. Or maybe, after all, this [i]is[/i] as good as they can be, which is its own kind of unfortunate. They are really just Weimar Republic man-children, the 1929 equivalent of Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler.
And, yes, the sad truth is that what is coming for these young men is not another lazy Sunday, not in the long term. I don't know what happened to most of the people in this movie, not really. Brigitte Borchert lived to be a hundred, but that's all I know about her, really. Alone of the main performers in the film, Christl Ehlers has a biography on IMDb--it's by her daughter. She was, it seems, part Jewish, and she was lucky to have had a father who made long-term plans to escape the Nazis. She survived. Wilder and the Siodmaks also got out. However, many, many others were not so lucky. Wilder lost several family members to the Holocaust (though not, as was long believed, at Auschwitz, as if that makes some kind of difference). Perhaps now, over eighty years later, it is possible to have a pleasant, laid-back life in Berlin without worrying too much about politics. For a very long time after this film was made, however, it basically wasn't.
Are you serious? This is some serious future talent you have here.
I not even mentioned the naturalistic and realistic filmmaking approach. The Siodmaks used non-professionals as actors and they act completely natural. They're just not trained in theatrical acting so they have to act like normal - and that's the film's biggest strength. I've never seen a silent before that wasn't acted over-the-top (ok, I haven't seen many silents at all) and this acting style was always the matter why I criticized older films (everything earlier than the 50s).
On the other hand, it's a quite experimental take on filmmaking. In documentary style Siodmak & Co. captures the life of five young men and women in Berlin in 1929 - in a time when this very Berlin was one of the most prosperous and fancy cities in the world and just before the Nazis took over power in Germany. This is a quite trivial approach though and although the scenes when our four or five main characters interact work quite well, all the establishing shots just drag along a bit (and there are quite long passages like this).
There's also not really a plot, or a climax, or suspense or any psychological meaning to it hence the (modern) viewer doesn't have much to concentrate on or to give one's attention.
The triviality and realistic approach thus is both the pro and the contra point of the film. Fine filmmaking but not really in a narrational manner.
PS: I saw a very well preserved/renovated version of it - without any music though (which was quite odd). Interesting viewing experience, but as I said not in a conventional narrative way.
I think the eat, drink, and be merry-ism of "People on Sunday" is interesting to compare with "Listen to Britain"--while the latter is obviously more conscious of political and social turmoil (and there was much more of it to be conscious of twelve years later), they both have a lot in common: the "city symphony"-style documentary approach, and, perhaps more importantly, a reassurance (whether intentionally or retrospectively) that, whatever else is going on in the world, life will go on and people will be people. I think that's sort of an uneasy thought with "People on Sunday," because we all know that Nazis are bad--the country is on the brink of what may be the most world-changing atrocities of the 20th century, and people are spending their Sundays their boating, flirting, and fling-ing. "People on Sunday" certainly represents a deeply materialistic culture, but I think it's materialism in one of its purest forms--not necessarily consumerism (though there's that), but a celebration of the material world itself: the tactile, the sensual (as it relates both to the five senses and to sexuality), the warmth of sunlight and the feel of cool water on a hot day. It seems a pretty apolitical film to me, which may be irresponsible (though, of course, hindsight is always 20/20, and it's hard to blame them for not seeing what's coming)--or it may be, like "Listen to Britain," a reminder of the things worth living (and, in the case of the latter, fighting) for. If every expression, artistic or otherwise, in a pre-war or war or post-war period reflected pain, loss, and anxiety, we'd only ever have movies about pain, loss, and anxiety. "People on Sunday" is unnervingly cheerful given what's to come, but people in Germany coming out of a lost war and a depression needed some cheering (and the film is certainly more socially conscious and grounded in reality than a lot of the escapism that was coming out of America at the time). Perhaps "People on Sunday" is blind to the world around it--but, youthful and naive as it is, it may actually be more deeply attuned to its surroundings than the rest of us. Wars come and go, and they often leave scars that never heal--but life can go on, people can be people, and springtime is eternal.