Movie Review: People on Sunday

People on Sunday, Criterion Collection DVD

When Americans think of Weimar Germany,  the images that tend to come to mind are of degenerate nightclub habitues and drug users…marching Brownshirts…hungry people…and political violence and rising anti-Semitism.  This movie shows a different side of Weimar:  four young working people go to the beach on Sunday.

The film was made by Billy Wilder and several other aspiring directors, screenwriters, and producers, almost all of whom later wound up in Hollywood. It’s a silent film, one of the last made, probably because the team could not afford sound equipment.  They also could not afford to hire “real” actors:  instead, they chose likely-looking people off the street and had them play characters who shared their own real-life professions.

Erwin is a taxi driver, Wolfgang is a wine salesman, Brigitte sells records for a living, Christl works as an extra in movies, and Annie (Erwin’s girlfriend) is a not-very-successful model.

On Saturday, Wolf picks up Christl near a subway station, where she is apparently waiting for someone who hasn’t shown up.  They go to a nearby cafe (“it’s tough to get stood up,” he sympathizes, to which she responds “I *don’t* get stood up”)  and make plans to meet the next day for a picnic at the Wannsee lakefront beach.  Christl brings her friend Brigitte, and Wolf brings Erwin.  (Annie was supposed to come, but wouldn’t get out of bed.)

This has been called an “effervescent, sunlit” film; it has also been called “cynical.”  Both interpretations are correct, IMO, although the cynicism aspect is pretty subtle. I thought the acting done by the nonprofessionals was quite fine.

It’s impossible to watch the film today, of course, without thinking about what was coming just a few years down the road.  If you have heard the word “Wannsee” before, and you are not a Berlin resident or visitor, it is probably because this district was to be the site of the Wannsee Conference, at which the initial planning for the “Final Solution” was done.

There are almost no actors in this film, other than the 5 non-professionals mentioned above; the people in the background in downtown Berlin and at the lake are not extras but rather are real-life Berliners going about their normal lives.  Watching, it’s hard to imagine that these quite-normal-seeming people would soon collectively perpetrate some of the worst crimes in history, or that many of them would themselves meet an apocalyptic fate.

The movie (previous titles considered had been Summer 29, Young People Like Us, and–rather presumptuously–This Is How It Is and No Different) was a big hit with Berlin moviegoers, and has apparently been very influential in the evolution of film.  There’s a well-written review at wonders in the dark.

The film was revived with considerable effort, involving the processing of multiple surviving partial prints.  The whole thing is available on-line, here; I watched the Criterion Collection DVD, which also includes a 2000 documentary about the film, featuring an  interview with Brigitte Borchert, a short film by the People on Sunday cinematographer, and a booklet on the film’s making and influence.

6 thoughts on “Movie Review: People on Sunday”

  1. The written counterpart might be Friedrich’s “Before the Deluge,” which can also be used to give some context to the film*. The Nazism and Communism which afflicted Berlin after 1933 may make the film poignant.

    Any reading of the film as “the innocence before totalitarian socialism” overlooks the civil war (in all but name) between the defenders (such as they were) of Weimar and its Communist enemies in 1919, and the consequences of the Weimar inflation in 1923. From 1919 to 1923 Berlin had famous cannibals, cultural upheaval, assasinations, financial loss, and civil war. Who ever you see in 1929 survived and was shaped by those years.

    * Friedrich didn’t do any original research for book. He seems to have read everyone’s memoirs, then stitched them together into a coherent story of Berlin.

  2. I like the movie, “The Swan”, Grace Kelly’s last film. It was a first for Alec Guinness, as it was his first American film and an unlikely role for him. I watch it with a sense of sadness as they do not know what is coming. It is set in a small Duchy about 1910, four years before that world was destroyed.

    Of course, it is fiction. The movie, The Woman in Gold is true and is also one of those that begin before the deluge.

  3. I always had a hard time watching Weimar Films. It is so very hard to see people who will soon completely destroy themselves by nationalism, racism, or just plain “doing my jobism”. I really like Metropolis and a few other films from Germany. Did our hatred of all things Nazi prevent us from seeing films that were not pure propaganda?

  4. Most/all of the filmmakers were Jewish, as was one of the actresses, Christl Ehlers. All the filmmakers got out in time; not true, though, of their relatives. Christl moved to Spain in 1933 (she was voted “most beautiful woman in Spain”) but had to move again (to the US) as a result of the Civil War and the victory of the Fascist forces.

  5. A film that doesn’t leave you. Are the Billie Wilders of today Iranian? Will we ever hear from them?

  6. I went looking for this since it sounds interesting. (If you haven’t seen a Criterion film before, they’re beautifully restored classics and usually worth watching.) I then decided to see if there are any clips available on YouTube that might give me a flavor of the film. Lo and behold, the entire film is there.

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