While Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" is often considered a freakish one-off because it embraced postmodernism more than a century before postmodernism (though more than a century after "Don Quixote"), "People on Sunday" (1930) is unique because it feels like it could not have been made at any other time, not even a few years before or after. Set in Berlin at the very end of the silent era, and just after the stock market crash but before the deprivations of the global depression would end the Weimar Republic and unleash the Nazi regime, "People on Sunday" is a luminous film that hints at a sad undercurrent. Its young characters appear hopeful about the future, but also resigned to regimented lives, and seeking joy in the glorious concept of "the weekend" where leisure need not be a guilty distraction.
As an independent production it was already a rarity in the industry, but the improbable to impossible collection of young talent has turned "People on Sunday" into a totem for generations of cinephiles. The 20-something co-directors receiving their first official helming credits were Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, both of whom would go on to Hollywood success after fleeing the Nazis. Ulmer would go on to direct a "freakish one-off" of his own, the brilliant and deranged "Detour" (1945). Siodmak's younger brother Curt also contributed to the project and would soon become a prolific writer of B-movies. The screenplay, such as it was, was written by a 23 year old journalist named Billie, soon to become Billy as in Wilder, and just for kicks the 22 year-old assistant cameraman was a kid named Fred who remained Fred as in Zinnemann. The artists responsible for "Sunset Boulevard," "High Noon," "The Wolfman," "Detour" and "The Killers" all in one place and all at the launch of their storied careers. But they weren't "big" yet, and they had shown up to play, though, like the characters in the film, they took their play very seriously.
Curiouser yet, the film trumpets in its opening credits the fact that it is an "experiment" and "a film with no actors." And it wasn't even in 3D! The cast of young Berlin non-professional actors had never appeared on camera before, but they are given on-screen introductions worthy of stars (the film's implication being that "regular people" are just as important and worthy of the big screen as celebrities). Each one is introduced by name and profession: Erwin, a taxi driver; Brigitte, a record store clerk; Wolfgang, a wine seller; Christl, an aspiring film extra; and Annie, a model. They were not chosen at random. They are all attractive, fit young people who could round out the lineup on "The Bachelorette" today, so we can't quite say that "People on Sunday" was an attempt to counter the glitz and glamour of commercial cinema, but their casting was certainly a bold move. They each play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves.
The film places its characters in the heart of the real Berlin, a sixth player in the cast. Wolfgang picks up Christl at a bustling trolley stop on Saturday and invites her for a day at the beach at the next day. She accepts and brings along her friend Brigitte. This provides the kindling for new romance once Erwin joins his friend Wolfgang without girlfriend Annie, who has decided to stay home to sleep.
The behavior of the two couples on the beach is at least partly scripted (actress Borchert claims it was totally improvised, but Wilder and others have provided conflicting accounts) but feels completely naturalistic. It's also surprisingly erotic as cameraman Eugen Schüfftan (the old man on the crew at 36, and a future Oscar winner for "The Hustler") lavishes attention on the young ladies' legs (Brigitte slipping off her pantyhose, Christl fussing at the hem of her bathing suit) and the fit men in tight-fitting swim trunks. Annie, a total knockout (easy to believe she was a model), exudes a proto-Edie Sedgwick languid sexiness as she stretches out on the bed and snoozes through the day back at the apartment. The narrative, such as it is, focuses on the complex interplay of the increasingly bold flirtations of the beachcombers: glances, gestures, touches. If there's a tragic undertone to the film (other than our knowledge of what was looming just a few years down the road), it's that the weekend is just an idyll and Monday must inevitably follow Sunday. And yet… another Sunday is guaranteed.
To add one more level of strangeness, this no-budget film advertised as an experiment without actors in which nothing in particular happens was actually a box office hit as well as a critical smash. In today's environment, "People on Sunday 2" would have been greenlit immediately, no doubt with a ten figure budget and at least one former tween starlet, but its success brought no wave of direct imitators. While the crew (though not the cast) would go on to fame, it was their relocation (some straight to Hollywood, others by way of Paris) that boosted their careers rather than the film.
But that makes "People on Sunday" all the more special, a singular achievement in its day that still plays vividly 80 years later. I'm pretty sure I'm in love with Annie too. But pick your favorite character – it's the kind of film that invites you to fall for any or all of them.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This is a 1080i (interlaced) transfer rather than Criterion's usual 1080p (progressive) transfer. Parts of "People on Sunday" were lost to the years, but much of it has been painstakingly reassembled for this cut which relies mainly on a truncated print from the Nederlands Filmmuseum but adds back scenes from versions at the Cinematheque Suisse, Cinematheque Royale de Belgique and the Fondazione Cineteca Italiana. What remains is still not the original version released in theaters, but the closest approximation we can get based on original records (German intertitles have also been added based on censors' records). This print was originally put together by Martin Koerber (at the Nederlands Filmmuseum) in 1997.
According to the Criterion booklet:
"A high-quality original nitrate print of the Dutch version… served as the basis for the restoration (by Koerber). In order to come as close as possible to the original complete German version of the film, shots were also taken from numerous elements at (the multiple sources listed above). Koerber's version largely follows the pioneering work done in the 1980s by Enno Patalas at the Munich Filmmuseum, but he was able to locate and incorporate about 150 meters of additional footage."
As a result, the image quality varies throughout and there are scratches, the occasional missing frame and changes in brightness level among the multiple sources. There are a few abrupt edits that are no doubt attributable to the scenes from the original cut that are still missing. The film has a pleasant grainy look and while the image resolution is seldom razor sharp, it is more than satisfactory.
Criterion has provided two different scores for this silent film. The "silent-era-style" score by the Mont Alto Orchestra is the default option on the disc. It originally premiered at Telluride in 2009 and was recorded again for Criterion in March 2011. A separate score (which can be selected through the set up menu or your Audio button) is described as "modern." It was composed by Elena Kats-Chernin and performed by the Czech Film Orchestra in 2000 with Frank Strobel conducting. I listened to the film with the Mont Alto score and thought it was quite lovely. I have only briefly sampled the Kats-Chernin score which is a more elaborate, wide-ranging symphony. Perhaps since I heard the Mont Alto score first, it sounds more "appropriate" to me, but your mileage will vary.
The German intertitles are supported by optional English subtitles.
There are two substantive extras on the disc.
"Weekend Am Wannsee" (31 min.) is a documentary by Gerald Koll about the making of the film whose production history remains somewhat enigmatic. Actress Brigitte Borchert, filmmaker Curt Siodmak and film restorer Martin Koerber are interviewed.
"Ins Blaue hinein" (1931, 36 min.) is a film directed by Eugen Schüfftan, cinematographer on "People on Sunday," and it resembles "Sunday" to a certain degree though I have to be honest and admit I only had time to watch the first ten minutes so I have to pass on judgment.
The 28-page insert booklet includes an essay by film scholar Noah Isenberg and articles published by Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak providing (conflicting) accounts of the film's production.
"People on Sunday" works as a document, a rare artifact, and a plain old-fashioned entertainment. Arriving just ahead of the storm clouds in Germany, it's a beautiful film and a tangible record of a very specific time, place, and group of young men and women having fun while they could. Martin Koerber (who has also worked on the restorations of "Metropolis" and "M") did a great job reassembling "People on Sunday" years ago, and now Criterion has done that work justice with a strong high-def presentation.