It may be tough to imagine, but in less than a quarter of a century — at the beginning of the 20th to be exact — the world faced two of the most violent wars in recorded history. The entire planet became a battlefield and more than 70 million people lost their lives in both wars combined. Germany often found itself at the center of conflict and during the interwar period (which lasted roughly 20 years) from it emerged one of the most significant symbols of this era: the Weimar Republic.
During these years, Germany not only went through a political shift (from an imperial government to one ruled by the parliament), it also underwent a period of cultural blossoming which gave us things like the Bauhaus school of design, Metropolis, and Marlene Dietrich. Out of Weimar also came figures with names like Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmark, Fred Zinneman, Edgar G. Ulmer and Eugen Schüfftan, all of whom would make careers in Hollywood after escaping from Nazi Germany.
If the individual names aren’t enough to impress you, consider that once all of them worked together on a little movie called People on Sunday. Advertised as a “film experiment” and “a film without actors”, this movie can be seen as a predecessor of reality entertainment, an exquisite docudrama and over all: a spooky time capsule that showed us a period of peace the film industry hasn’t really preoccupied itself with.
People on Sunday is essentially a chronicle that follows two couples during a weekend trip to the recreational zone of Nikolassee, outside Berlin. These people are wine dealer Wolfgang (Wolfgang von Waltershausen), his friend Erwin (Erwin Splettstößer), model Christl (Christl Ehlers) and her friend Brigitte (Brigitte Borchert) a record salesgirl.
Wolfgang meets Christl, asks her to come with him to a picnic the next day and she brings Brigitte. Erwin on the other hand, has a girlfriend at home (Annie Schreyer) but after a lovers’ quarrel she ends up staying home, leaving him and Wolfgang to have a bachelors’ weekend.
The film follows their mini-trip from Berlin to the country and back again, time during which the filmmakers indulge in capturing the reactions from their amateur performances while mixing them with footage from other vacationers’ adventures. “These five people never appeared in front of a camera before” reads a title card that appears when the film begins, however in an informative documentary included among the DVD extras, we learn that after shooting the film, most of them tried to make it in the movies. Trivia like this makes the film even more fascinating because these people’s need to squeeze their 15 minutes of fame predates American media’s current need to make a star out of everyone and heck, it even predates Andy Warhol’s concept of “15 minutes of fame”.
As if watching “real life” people, putting up a show where they play versions of themselves, wasn’t strange enough, the documentary also helps us learn that at one point, People on Sunday was meant to be a sci-fi film! Curt Siodmark, its writer, and director Robert’s brother, reveals that his original story was about the city, as an entity, visiting the country and then showing its return. After wondering about how to represent this, and most likely after realizing that a project of this scope would require more than their tiny production team could deliver, they decided to rely on good old fashioned metonymy to deliver what we ultimately see.
However. you can still feel the way in which the filmmakers tried to remind us of the unnatural routine that becomes living in a city. When the movie begins we are bombarded with Eisenstenian cuts that seem almost mechanical and as the action moves to the country, the film tries to go for a more pastoral feel, giving us longer tracking shots, pans and even a marvelous tilt that deftly makes a sex scene seem less inadequate and almost heavenly.
The film is a beauty to behold and most of it is owed to cinematographer Schüfftan, the man responsible for conveying the special effects in Metropolis (which in return inspired every single sci-fi movie that came after it). Schüfftan is able to capture the luminosity of the countryside in all its glory but through framing and composition reminds us that we are basically watching an invasion.
He seems to take special interest in juxtaposing foreign elements that divide the screen and remind us that we are watching a disruption of “normal” continuity. A row slashes across the peacefulness of a lake, human figures interrupt the flow of moving grass… all of these elements are specifically highlighted and serve as reminders that soon these elements would be gone.
As simple and ethereal as the movie can feel, its influences on further films is more than evident, especially when thinking about the individual work the people involved in it created afterwards. “No one foresees their international future success” reminds us the behind-the-scenes documentary, but looking back we can identify key aspects we might remember from Zinneman’s From Here to Eternity for example.
People on Sunday is remarkable not only because of its own formal achievement but because of what it symbolizes as a snapshot of Weimar. If you thought Bob Fosse was onto something when he shot the disturbing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in Cabaret, this little film’s innocent intentions and the eventual realization of the hell that followed it is deeply haunting.