A unique collaboration of future Hollywood ex-pats, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinneman, Curt Siodmak and Edgar Ulmer meets the mark we’d expect from such young and talented filmmakers, a freeform kind of neo-realism combining non-actors in an unsecured real-world setting with only a semblance of a narrative script. And it's intoxicating.
People on Sunday (1930) dir. Robert Siodmak
Starring: Erwin Splettstößer, Brigitte Borchert, Wolfgang von Waltershausen, Christl Ehlers, Annie Schreyer
By Alan Bacchus
What a pedigree of talent behind this remarkable landmark in experimental independent cinema. It’s a silent German film at the end of the famed ‘Weimar period’ of German cinema, directed by future ex-pats Robert Siodmak and his brother Curt, and co-written by Billy Wilder. The film was produced by Edgar Ulmer, who was the set designer for Metropolis and M and himself a future Hollywood emigrant. Look closely and you’ll find the great Fred Zinneman (High Noon, From Here to Eternity) as cameraman. All of these guys were hopeful filmmakers in the ‘20s, unable to break into the German film industry themselves and thus, like any young emerging filmmaker today, they were forced to make it on their own with guile.
The vague title is an indication of the unrestrictive nature of the story at play. A taxi driver, a model, a film extra and a wine dealer, all young Berliners who float about the city as strangers, eventually meet up for a relaxing double date involving a paddleboat on the river on a Sunday afternoon.
The sexual tension between the four of them is palpable. Edwin, the taxi driver, for example, is engaged to Annie who spends her days moping around the house. On the day of their date he finds her sleeping on the bed, but he leaves anyway to meet up with Wolfgang. Together they pick up Christl and Brigitte for said 'double date'. Siodmak and his colleagues never pass judgement on Edwin for possibly cheating on his girlfriend. A carefree 'swinging' attitude is something we’d see in New Wave film or British kitchen sink dramas of the ‘60s.
The sexual liberties can also be seen in a number of suggestive metaphors with creative editing. At one point Wolfgang chases after Brigit, where they make out on the grass. The next scene begins with a shot of a nude mannequin implying they just had casual sex. Wolfgang, in fact, freely flirts with both women in an astute and playful battle of sexes.
Zinneman’s camera is always in a state of flux, capturing the flavour of the city with the same laconic style as the characters in the film. Siodmak’s placement of the 'actors' in real locations with unrehearsed real background crowds lends a remarkable production value to this very small film. And look out for the sharpness of the editing (which is not credited). The brisk pace from the variety of camera angles feels thoroughly modern, arguably taking some strong influence from the famed Soviet editing techniques. In fact, in the Criterion Collection liner notes, Dsiga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera and the Eisenstein films seem to be the filmmakers’ prime influence.
Part of the joy of the film is the contention between all these great filmmakers about who the true author of the picture is. Robert Siodmak denies Wilder had any involvement at all, and Ulmer (the credited producer) worked just a handful of days on the film. In his older age Billy Wilder would once tell Cameron Crowe that ‘they all directed it.’ Much of these speculations are storied in the fine documentary produced in 2000, as well as the comprehensive liner notes included on the Blu-ray disc.
As usual, Criterion outdoes itself by introducing the cinema world at large to a rare gem featuring some of the greatest filmmakers – young, ambitious, carefree and passionate artists looking to make their mark in the great medium of film.
People on Sunday is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.