Here are five people from Berlin who have never appeared before a camera, and we will follow them across the course of this weekend in 1929. They are Erwin (Erwin Splettstößer) the taxi driver, who is looking forward to his final fare of the day, Brigitte (Brigitte Borchert), who works in a record store, knowing she will have to spend Saturday there, Wolfgang (Wolfgang von Waltershausen) who makes his living selling wine, and is therefore better off than the others, Christl (Christl Ehlers) who is a film extra and feeling run off her feet, and Annie (Annie Schreyer), a model who simply wants to sleep rather than get on with things, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend...
What we do not know as this lot were introduced was that they all know each other, two romantically, though that particular mystery was cleared up fairly quickly as the point of the film was not to show these middle class Berliners at work, but at play, the Sunday of the title when as it is a pleasant summer's day they can all let their hair down and head off to the local park, which features a large boating lake. This documentary realism for what was in fact scripted marked People on Sunday out as different from the norm, certainly from what was being produced at German studios of the day, and as a result it was a substantial hit, and not merely in its native land either.
Here was the Germany of the Weimar Republic, where the horrors of the Great War were finally able to be put behind them and a bright new future represented by these equally bright young things was there for the taking. And we are all well aware of how that turned out, aren't we? Yes, with more horror, of which there is absolutely no hint in any single frame of this film, which leads to a disconnect between what history tells us was to happen to the world in the nineteen-thirties, and the events that are apparently nothing but authentic that play out here. Can we discern anything of what went so terribly wrong from People on Sunday? Were they completely ignorant?
Living in the twenty-first century when the mood is that bad times are just around the corner, and an apocalypse is waiting to play itself out, it is all too easy to look back on the Germans in this film and see them as people with their heads in the sand. Yet that lends it some poignancy that would not be the case at the point of its release, for at that time audiences loved to see what closely resembled their own lives, with the love affairs, petty arguments, carefree playtime and the daily grind that Sunday provides an escape from, they were not thinking, oh well, better enjoy this while it lasts, it's all going to Hell in a few short years. It may be debatable how much was manufactured for the screen and how much was really going on, as we see plenty of apparently candid shots and scenes that appear spontaneous, but it does, crucially, come across as authentic.
One reason this was significant in film history was the talent behind the camera. Billy Wilder was on screenplay duties, not adhering to a style that he would stick with once he fled the Nazis and ended up in Hollywood, yet you could say that of his compatriots here: credited directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, and contributors Fred Zinneman and Curt Siodmak, all of whom brought a set of circumstances to American filmmaking that in various ways would shake up the Hollywood landscape from low budget to big budget. That's a good enough reason for the vintage movie buffs to check out People on Sunday, yet even if those names mean little to you the sheer vividness of what was depicted, ranging from the road sweepers to the character stuff that sees jealousies and sex rear their heads, would be enough to recommend it, especially as everyone who saw it in the early nineteen-thirties agreed this was their lives presented on the silver screen. While there is comedy here (what's that arse-slapping contest about, then?), overall the sense is of melancholy that it was all about to be lost. It's a strange sensation this brings up.
[This has been released on Blu-ray by the BFI, and here are the features on the disc:
Presented in High Definition
Two vibrant scores by leading Australian composer Elene Kats-Chernin and the experimental Icelandic group múm
Weekend am Wansee (Weekend at the Wannsee, 2000, 31 mins): Gerald Koll's documentary about People on Sunday featuring interviews with star Brigitte Borchert and writer Curt Siodmak
Eine Fahrt durch Berlin (A Trip Through Berlin, 1910, 6 mins): a ride through the streets of Berlin, from the bustling Friedrichstraße and Leipziger Straße to the city seen from the Spree
Beside the Seaside (1935, 23 mins): Marion Grierson's beguiling picture of the British seaside, with a commentary written by WH Auden
This Year London (1951, 28 mins): documentary by John Krish following the adventures of Leicester factory workers on their staff outing to London
Newly commissioned commentary by Adrian Martin (2019, 75 mins)
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet with new essays by Amanda De Marco and Sarah Wood and full film credits.]