[A version of this review appeared in Film International 22 (2006), 69–71.]
Even if it were not a remarkable film, People on Sunday (1930) would still have a place in film history because of the subsequent fame of its makers, all of whom sooner or later left Germany for America. It is based on an original story by Curt Siodmak, who later wrote and directed a number of horror and exploitation movies in Hollywood, but is probably best known as the author of Donovan’s Brain (1942), filmed several times. He developed the screenplay with his brother, Robert, who became one of the major directors of American film noir, and Billy Wilder, who became one of the major Hollywood directors full stop. Robert co-directed the film with Edgar G. Ulmer, who directed numerous Hollywood films, mainly for poverty-row studios, including The Black Cat (1934) and Detour (1945). Their cinematographer was Eugen Schüfftan. A decade older than the others, he was already an established figure in German cinema, probably best known for the special-effects process which he invented for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and which still bears his name (because of union disputes, his Hollywood career is largely uncredited, although he did eventually win the cinematography Oscar for The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)). Schüfftan’s camera assistant was Fred Zinnemann, who later directed such films as High Noon (1952) and From Here to Eternity (1953). People on Sunday, the project that brought all these talents together right at the start of their careers might well have been remembered for this reason alone. However, it is much more than a mere curiosity or apprentice piece. It stands – alongside Berlin, ein Symphonie einer Grosstadt (Ruttman, 1927), Berliner Stilleben (Moholy-Nagy, 1929), M (Lang, 1931) and Kuhle Wampe (Dudow, 1932), alongside Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) and the writings of Rudolf Arnheim, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht and Siegfried Kracauer – as a key document of the late Weimar period.
Subtitled ‘A film without actors’, it cast five non-professional actors as young Berliners, each character with the same name and job as the person playing him or her. The taxi-driver Erwin lives with the model Annie. On Saturday evening, his friend, the travelling wine salesman Wolfgang, picks up the film-extra Christl, and arranges to go out with her the following day. He invites Erwin and Annie along, but next morning Annie sleeps in, so Erwin goes without her. Christl brings her friend, the record-shop salesgirl Brigitte, with her. The foursome travel out into the countryside, swim in the lake, picnic, listen to records and nap. Christl rejects Wolfgang’s advances and becomes jealous when he switches his attentions to Brigitte. At the end of the day, they all go their separate ways. Next morning, it is back to work, back to everyday life – four million Berliners all looking forward to next Sunday.
When I have taught this film, my students have generally been surprised by its casual attitude towards sex and struck by Wolfgang’s laddish preference to go to a football match with Erwin the following weekend rather than on the date he has made with Brigitte. Others are impressed by the energy and mobility of the camera – an example of the enfesselte Kamera (unchained camera) that was so central to the Kammerspielfilm (chamber play film) and Milieutonfilm (milieu talkie) traditions with which Robert Siodmak’s later Weimar work is associated. What I find most interesting about People on Sunday, though, is the way in which it blends together actuality footage and undressed (and uncontrolled) location shooting with events staged on location (some of which are presented as actuality footage) and on the film’s single set (Erwin and Annie’s apartment). It begins, like a city symphony film, with montages of Berlin’s streets and buildings, eventually selecting Christl and Wolfgang from its countless bustling inhabitants. Throughout the film are interspersed similar prolonged actuality sequences, cutting away from the characters to real Berliners as they too undertake workday labour or pursue Sunday leisure activities. Pedestrians weave through horse-drawn and motorised vehicles; streets are swept and hosed down; elevated trains race past ubiquitous advertising; people swim or boat or play field hockey (or a strange schoolboy spanking game); they eat and sleep; they play with their children; they visit memorials or listen to bands; they relax – while shop-window mannequins are left with nothing to do, no actual function, when the stores are closed and the streets deserted. And then, next day, Berlin goes back to work.
In the late 1920s, Germany’s left-wing intelligentsia formulated an array of artistic-political movements, including activism, expressionism and new objectivism (Neue Sachlichkeit). People on Sunday, along with Erich Maria Remarque’s fiction, is a prime example of the latter, which Walter Benjamin attacked in his essay ‘The Author as Producer’ (1934). He argued that, whereas Dadaism framed collages of picture fragments, ticket stubs, cotton reels and cigarette butts, thus demonstrating how the picture frame destroys time, new objectivist photomontage is ‘incapable of photographing a tenement or a rubbish-heap without transfiguring it … It has succeeded in turning abject poverty itself, by handling it in a modish, technically perfect way, into an object of enjoyment’ (Benjamin 1973: 94–95). Or, in Esther Leslie’s memorable explication of his critique, ‘The world is beautiful, it gushes, and [new objectivism] shows its skill by lavishing any soup can with cosmic significance, while unable to grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists’ (Leslie 2000: 59). While this might be true of the movement more generally, I think it is hard – or, perhaps, with the passage of time has become harder – to dismiss People on Sunday in this way. Without doubt, its images are pristine and its methods if not modish then at least cutting edge. But its blending of types of footage does weave its characters into a broader social and economic fabric than is common, and the images of contemporary Berlin form such a major part of the film that they are more than mere scene-setting, positioning the characters as typical rather than exemplary. This typicality is captured by non-actors Erwin and Annie destroying each other’s photos of movie stars. This scene – shot, ironically enough, on the film’s only set – announces the film’s sense of its own difference from dominant forms of cinematic realism, and critics have been quick to describe it as an influence on Jean Renoir’s films of the 1930s, Italian neo-realism, the French New Wave, the British Free Cinema movement, and others. It certainly raises lots of questions as to what we mean by ‘realism’.
One of the major early debates in film theory was about whether to consider the frame as a window opening on to a world that extends unseen into off-screen space or as a border which, like a picture frame, is an absolute limit, with meaning determined solely by the enframed image’s composition. The former position is typically associated with André Bazin, the latter with Jean Mitry. Curiously, for all the championing of People on Sunday as realist, the sequence most frequently recalled is one in which the filmmakers most decisively intervene in what we see. Philip Kemp describes it as ‘the famous shot where, as two people start to make love in a sylvan glade, the camera pans tactfully away – to a nearby rubbish tip’. The camera in fact performs a complex figure-of-eight pan-and-tilt movement, taking us away from Wolfgang and Brigitte as they recline onto the dirt. It moves away and up into the air, past phallic fir trees which also connote the naturalness of sex while suggesting some kind of transcendent experience, and then down to reveal garbage scattered on the forest floor. It then moves back across the forest floor, up past more trees until it reaches the tallest fir, again connoting the phallic as well as an orgasmic climax, and then down to find Wolfgang, fully dressed, standing over Brigitte.
This elaborate camera movement – there is a cut in the middle, but it is unclear whether it is deliberate, connoting the passage of time, or an ‘invisible’ cut we are not supposed to register, or a case of missing frames1 – goes right to the heart of the debate between Bazin and Mitry. Through its duration it reveals the world extending beyond the frame, while each individual frame does precisely the opposite. Likewise, its complex set of meanings is achieved not through the composition of the individual frame but through movement and duration, the juxtaposition of different frames some seconds apart from each other and, equally significantly, through activating and playing with fiction conventions. In the shots immediately preceding this one, Wolfgang takes on the air of a melodramatic villain about to force virginal Brigitte into despicable acts. That she responds to the kiss he forces on her is a cliché familiar from rape fantasies, from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) onwards. But as her willing surrender reconstitutes rape as lovemaking, the pan away should be to a roaring fireplace or a moonlit window or, bearing in mind their location, animals frolicking. And the camera movement initially works in this way, if only then to make the deflationary comparison with the garbage heap more effective. However, the shot does not end there. Instead, it makes quite compelling comparisons between the camera and the phallus, technical virtuosity and (male) sexual climax, before returning us to a scenario which is both comically deflationary – Wolfgang’s sexual prowess does not seem to include either duration or repetition – and potentially melodramatic: for a brief moment it looks as though he is standing over Brigitte’s corpse, and in the subsequent pair of shots of her she at least seems to have swooned. Her subsequent assumption that their lovemaking is a meaningful prelude to a relationship is depicted as a dewy-eyed romanticism, which even Wolfgang’s calculated indifference does not shatter.
The introduction of any new cinematic technique intended more realistically to capture the world inevitably draws attention to itself. By breaking with convention – even in order to make film more transparent – artifice announces itself. While People on Sunday might initially seem to compile elements that merely open up the debates around how the realist image of the world is to be regarded, this sequence, like the destruction of the photos, argues for a somewhat different position than those associated with Bazin and Mitry. The frame is neither a window nor a border, and realism is not about capturing the ‘real world’ or organizing it so as to ‘reveal’ its immanent truth. Realism is ultimately an argument, not about the world but about its representation. Regardless of whether People on Sunday overcomes new objectivism’s general failure to grasp human connections, it does question the place of representation in the world. And as the world it depicts is that of capitalist modernity, it warns, long before postmodernism, of capital’s colonization of both nature and the unconscious.
Benjamin, Walter (1973), Understanding Brecht (trans. Anna Bostock), London: New Left Books.
Leslie, Esther (2000), Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism, London: Pluto.
1 This is the fullest extant version of the film, reconstructed from several prints to 1837 of its original 2014 metres.