Early & Silent Film

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Menschen am Sonntag / People on Sunday

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2012

This film is a late entry into the silent period of German cinema. However, it is not one of the impressive dramas filmed at the giant UFA studios, for example Joe May’s Asphalt (1929). This is a small, independent film made by a group of young filmmakers making their way in the industry. Using four ordinary working Berliners they offer a portrait of life and leisure in Germany and its capital at the end of the 1920s. The film was shot almost entirely on location and on a shoestring budget. It offers a foretaste of the film realism that graced French cinema in the 1930s and Italian Neo-realism in the 1940s.

The production consists of a team of talented filmmakers, the majority of whom moved to Hollywood when the Third Reich replaced the Weimar Republic. The director was Robert Siodmak, assisted by Edgar G. Ulmer and one of the two very experienced filmmakers in the team, Rochus Gliese. Gliese had worked at UFA right through the 1920s under Erich Pommer as a writer, designer and director: he had collaborated with famous director F. W. Murnau. The other very experienced hand was the lighting cameraman Eugen Schüfftan. Schüfftan was an extremely talented cinematographer and an expert in special effects; he had worked on the famous 1926 Metropolis. His camera assistant was Fred Zinnemann, also bound for Hollywood: as were the storywriter Curt Siodmak [brother of Robert] and the scriptwriter, Billy Wilder.

Wilder described some of the production work in a newspaper article in 1930 [reprinted in film notes 1997]:

“Finally we hit on the right idea: it has to be a film as simple as a report: a film about Berlin, about its people, about everyday things that we all know. First we consider using young actors. No: the people have to be authentic. So we start searching: In front of a bar, on Kurfürstendamm, Seeler discovers a chauffeur, Taxe lA 10 088, Erwin Splettstößer. In a flash, he agrees to take part. Ms. Borchert thinks that we have something else in mind. She sells records. It’s hard work talking her into it. Her family thinks that we’re white slave traders. Just the same, she turns up at the rehearsal on Thielplatz. Christl Ehlers turns up too. Ehlers has had some experience: she worked as a film extra for Dupont, and she swears that she’s on a first-name basis with the production manager of Lupu Pick. Someone for the role of the Walterhausen falls right into our laps and turns out to be exactly what we need.

Meanwhile the screenplay is sketched out. Seven typewriter-pages. We come up with the perfect trick: condense all of Berlin to a single Sunday.”

There are in fact five main characters, Erwin, Brigitte from the record shop], Christl, Wolfgang [a salesman] and Annie, who spends Sunday at home. The film introduces the main characters to us at their work on the Saturday, follows their day of leisure and then ends as they start a new working week. The major part of the film is their joint excursion to Lake Wansee, on the outskirts of Berlin. This was a popular day resort in the 1920s: it acquired darker significance in the 1940s from the infamous Wansee Conference. During this Sunday the four your people swim, picnic, flirt, fall out and make up: though finally there is an ambiguity about their relationships.

This simple treatment of everyday life was not an isolated example in this period.  The famous critic Siegfried Kracauer discusses the film together with Markt am Witenbergplatz (Street Markets in Berlin, 1929) as ‘cross-section’ films  “through an assemblage of documentary shots” And in 1931 Bertolt Brecht collaborated on a sound film with Slatan Dudow about a camp for the unemployed Kuhle Wampe [the title of the camp]. Kracauer is critical of the 1929 film for its lack of political content. Certainly the 1931 film is more consciously political. However, Menschen am Sonntag does contain fairly subtle political comments. The central relationships are presented with a strong taste of irony [presumably down to Billy Wilder]. The two male characters in particular present the fecklessness of their sex. These workers are not proletarians, they are caught between the manual working class and the petty bourgeoisie; their lives clearly contain a strong element of alienation. And when the film broadens out to encompass the larger Berlin population of four million there are sequences that express the significant disparities of urban life. There is also the rising militarism of the late 1920s suggested with the placing of parades among the desultory activities of a Sunday afternoon and traditional municipal statutory admired by groups including uniformed men.

Menschen am Sonntag does not just deal with a small group of ordinary working Berliners. As Kracauer noted, the film is also full of shots of Berlin and of working Berliners. Here the film overlaps with a cycle of mainly documentary films of the late 1920s, ‘city symphonies’. The most famous German example if Berlin – Die Symfonie der Grosstadt (Berlin- Symphony of a City 1927) directed by Walter RuttmannHowever, this is a fairly abstract film, presenting the city as a complex of buildings, spaces, transport, movement: all reduced to shapes and patterns, even the people. Menschen is closer to the city films of directors like Alberto Cavalcanti whose Rien Que Le Heures, (Only the Hours, 1927) presents dawn-to-dusk in Paris. Both share an interest in the change from work to leisure and back again, which is found in the Soviet masterwork of Dziga Vertov Chelovek s Kinoapparatom (The Man With a Movie Camera, 1929).

 Stylistically the film shares qualities with all these contemporary works. The activities of the central quartet are shot with frequent mid-shots and close-ups and even large close-ups. But much of the larger Berlin is filmed with travelling shots interspersed with superimposition’s and even the occasion fast montage. The connections and parallels across these populations are bought out visually in a number of sequences that frame recurring actions and responses: people looking out of windows: people laughing and smiling; people being photographed at the resort;

There is also one intriguing sequence, cutting between a fierce looking zealot, traditional statues of national heroes and leaders, and a stone lion – this is clearly a pastiche of Eisenstein’s famous lions, screened in the capital a couple of years earlier.

The film premiered in Berlin in February 1930. It was well received by the critics and had a successful run of six months. Over the years the films suffered intentional and unintentional cuts: For example the Dutch censors cut over 24 metres from the film, including parts of a scene of a couple together in the woods: and a nude mannequin dummy in a show window! But the censor apparently left alone the very suggestive domestic circumstances of Erwin and Annie. By the time that the revival of interest in the Silent period in the 1980s occurred the original film running 2,014 metres had been reduced to about 1600 metres. In 1997 the Nederlands Filmmuseum, collaborating with other film archives, produced a restoration 1839 metres. Whilst not full-length, the restored version has excellent visual quality and preservers both the adventures of the young quartet and the images of Berlin and Berliners. It also displays at times the distinctive style of Eugene Schüfftan, with the occasional shot recalling his work at UFA.

The film was screened at the National Media Museum in Bradford witha good quality 35 mm print from the British Film Institute with the original German titles and English subtitles. The film ran at 22 frames per second and lasted just on 73 minutes. And there was an excellent piano accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla.

 

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