People on Sunday

We review the BFI’s newest release of People on Sunday – an early work of six of the finest émigré directors, writers and cinematographers.

When I picked this up for review, I was going off the fact that it was directed by Robert Siodmak, who directed The Killers (1946) and Edgar G. Ulmer, director of Detour (1945).  Both of these directors, I presumed, are better known for their Film Noirs in America during the 40s and beyond. I knew very little of this film and it wasn’t until I was digging into the lovely BFI booklet that accompanies the disc that I realised just how important a film this is. Especially, in shaping the early careers of Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here to Eternity), Curt Siodmak (who wrote The Wolfman and I Walked With a Zombie among others), Eugen Schüfftan (who coined the Schüfftan technique, a special effects technique for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) and Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot, The Apartment), all of whom would leave Germany behind and move to Hollywood from 1929-1939 respectively.

People on Sunday [Menschen am Sonntag] is a quiet unassuming film, which is shot in a documentary style for the most part, and really shows off the filmmaking of the Weimar era specifically Berlin before the breakout of World War II. It depicts five young Berliners – taxi driver, a travelling wine dealer, a record shop sales girl, a film extra and a model – played by non-actors Erwin Splettstoßer, Brigitte Borchert, Wolfgang von Waltershausen, Christl Ehlers and Annie Schreyer, and how they spend their Sunday together. Or at least four of them (the fifth stays in bed all day) and follows their exploits during a day in the countryside and… that’s it. There is little pretension about it, things just happen, people become jealous, they fight, they love, they have fun, and then they go back to their lives for the week to start again.

BFI’s presentation of the disc is very good especially for a 90-year-old film. The film itself starts with an introduction informing us that we are watching a 2K restoration, a pieced together version from 2010.  This restoration is constructed from the elements that could be recovered. Sections are still lost, as the original negative is long gone, but the restoration for the most part is still great. There are, however, some splices, some dust, scratches and marks, but nothing too bad at all.  Being a silent film, there is musical accompaniment and on this disc we are offered two choices of scores.

One of which is by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin. This is the more traditional, even typical, silent movie piano score. The second is provided by Icelandic experimental group Múm is more electronica led, and seemingly one that the band has played live alongside the film for years.  I chose to play People on Sunday with the Múm score, and while good in making the film feel more modern than it is, it doesn’t always fit the picture it accompanies.  It reminded me a bit of the Air score on Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon (1902) in that respect; beautiful on its own but overpowering the film in other places.

Audio commentary provided by author and critic Adrian Martin is full of insight into the film and notes on why things were shot certain ways.  It’s informative without being dry and you have the option of watching the film with his commentary on rather than listening to either score, it’s that good.

Other extras include Gerald Kroll’s documentary Weekend am Wansee (Weekend at the Wannsee, 2000, 31 mins) which features interviews with writer Curt Siodmak and star Brigitte Borchert. The disc’s other extras are loosely thematically linked:  There is the 1910 Eine Fahrt Durch Berlin (A Trip Through Berlin, 1910, 6 mins) which takes us through the streets of Berlin. A documentary entitled This Year – London (1951, 28 mins) by John Krish following Leicester factory workers and their trip to the Big Smoke. Beside the Seaside (1935, 23 mins) is Marion Grierson’s beguiling picture of the British seaside.

While none of these are essential extras, they round off a decent package of a significant film. Although limited to the first pressing only, there is also a filly illustrated booklet replete with new essays by Amanda De Marco and Sarah Wood, as well as the full film credits, which gifts even more insight into the film’s history.


Peter Hearn

Updated: Jun 26, 2019

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