Directors: Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer
Writer: Billy Wilder
Cinematographers: Eugen Schufftan and Fred Zinneman
Stars: Erwin Splettstosser, Brigitte Borchert, Wolfgang von Waltershausen, Christl Ehlers
Studio/Running Time: Criterion, 73 min.
The pleasures derived from watching People on Sunday are both universal and particular to only one instant in both cinema and world history. Its story, two men and two women going out for a lazy Sunday together looking for love or at least sex before returning to work for another week, is completely timeless. Its simple longing and lust for life are easily identifiable and its characters ring just as true today as they did when it was made. Nearly everything else about it, though, could never happen again and it remains a true oddity, an accidental masterpiece made in Germany during the final moments before the collapse of the Weimar Republic.
The details behind the creation of People on Sunday are sketchy at best, with everyone involved in the film offering a different opinion on what happened, but what’s known for sure is that it brought together the talents of future well-known directors Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, not to mention the novelist Curt Siodmak and masterful cinematographer Fred Zinnemann. No one in the group had worked much in film prior to the picture, and they set out to create a movie in opposition to the bloated epics being produced by Ufa. With practically no budget, they cast non-professional actors to improvise based upon outlines from Wilder and shot almost entirely on location.
Resulting from this radical method of filmmaking is a movie that’s half-abstract documentary, half-narrative. At one point characters are absent for almost an entire reel while the camera travels around the city with more beautiful cinematography than Walter Ruttmann’s earlier Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis. The radical departure in acting style and the improvisatory nature of the feature’s plot made it a predecessor for both the Italian neo-realist movies made following WWII and the French New Wave of the 1960s. That a film like this was made in 1929 is astounding, and that these experiments all succeeded in every regard is practically a miracle.
Shortly after People on Sunday was made, the way of life it depicts came to a screeching halt shortly after its release and this inflects any viewing of it today. Nearly every person involved with creating the picture immediately fled the country in anticipation of Hitler’s rise to power, and with the advent of the Nazi Party, Berlin’s streets would never look the same again. The film acts as a time capsule for both a city that was lost and the aspirations of its creators without sacrificing its desire to show what life is like when you’re young and full of life.