Reviews

'People on Sunday': A Haunting Snapshot of the Weimar Era

This beautiful docudrama gives us a glimpse of Germany's dark past and announces the future of some of its brightest film stars.


People on Sunday

Director: Robert Siodmark
Cast: Wolfgang von Waltershausen,Erwin Splettstöße,Christl Ehlers,Brigitte Borchert
Release date: 2011-06-28

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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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