People on Sunday Review
People on Sunday plays like Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera cross-bred with Jean Renoir’s Une Partie de campagne. On the one hand it’s a “city symphony” film capturing the Berlin of 1929, on the other it details the romantic mores and jealousies of four of its participants during an idyllic summer’s day. It’s an intriguing blend that at first glance doesn’t appear to be synonymous, yet People on Sunday has a quite remarkable assembly filmmakers working in one capacity or other behind the camera. When their names include Billy Wilder, brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar G. Ulmer and Eugen Schüfften then their collective contribution to cinema amounts to a prodigious amount of classics, from Sunset Blvd. to I Walked With a Zombie, The Killers to High Noon and Detour to Les Yeux sans visage to name a mere six, plus the seemingly unfortunate by-product that People on Sunday has a lot to live up to.
Yet this is a film that easily holds its own in such company and, more importantly, never seems overtly attached to these later works (though Philip Kemp does pick up on a number of tonal similarities in his sleeve notes). Key to this is its “city symphony” status and therefore its documentary qualities, a genre which would never again play a significant part in its makers’ later careers. But whereas other such “symphonies” were strict in their approach, or in the case of Vertov’s entry proclaimed their self-reflexivity, People on Sunday injects a narrative thread that gives it a much greater freedom. Certainly we get the requisite shots of trams and other reportage, but the film is also free to take detours into a more personal, and hence more inviting, territory.
Approaching 80 years of age there is, of course, the danger that such storytelling could appear dated when juxtaposed with the overlying factual techniques. Yet this would be to ignore People on Sunday’s subtitle: “a film without actors”. Indeed, the film’s experimental credentials (it is being released under the BFI’s ‘History of the Avant-Garde’ umbrella) are earned with its - cinematically speaking - early use of nowadays fully established realist methods. Each of the on-screen participants is effectively playing themselves - a taxi driver, a model, a film extras, a shop assistant, a wine dealer - all of whom, we are informed, returned to their day jobs once production had concluded. Moreover, they are captured in the same manner as their surrounding, sometimes eavesdropped on from a distance, sometimes caught in loving close-up. What’s interesting in this respect is just how different the film feels from the more typical Hollywood romances. Rather than adopt a classical style, People on Sunday has more of a freeform edge. The filmmakers seem to have taken each individual shot as a separate entity, and if they wish to digress into some inconsequential minutiae or other, then they do. Yet within the confines of the “city symphony” framework, such detours never seem out of place, rather they add to the overall picture of between wars German life. (In this respect People on Sunday would make for an excellent double-bill with Alan Bennett’s teleplay A Day Out.)
As for the performances themselves, each demonstrates a warmth and humour that is integral to People on Sunday’s charms. Yet for all their qualities it is the technical side of the film which proves more important. Of the six major figures behind the camera it is Schüfften, the only experienced contributor at the time, who is key to its success and his often truly beautiful photography which marries the film together. After all, its constituent parts are now so familiar that they could prove negligible to a modern audience: the docu-drama combination, the “city symphony”; the various realist methods. However, in his capable hands each is blended into the other seamlessly meaning that People on Sunday is far greater than the sum of its parts and still feels remarkably fresh to this day.
As we are informed before the film proper commences, People on Sunday’s original negative no longer exists and as such we are presented with the best that is on offer, a slightly incomplete version constructed from various sources. Under such circumstances we can forgive the occasional grainy or overly soft shot and the intermittent flicker. Otherwise, the image is pleasingly crisp, though of course its documentary nature and on the hoof shooting methods means that we should not expect perfection throughout.
The soundtrack comes courtesy of Elenh Kats-Chernin and the Czech Film Orchestra. It’s a superb offering, one that matches the momentum of the film and also shares its tendency to go off into unexpected areas making for a continually intriguing listen. Moreover, its presentation (in stereo) on disc is utterly flawless throughout.
The extras relating directly to People on Sunday are decidedly hit-and-miss. A twelve-page booklet has thrown up some intriguing archive material from the 1930s alongside Philip Kemp’s typically fine liner notes, but the disc itself houses only a handful of cursory at best biographies for the main contributors. However, a supporting feature is present in the form of the minor delight that is This Year - London. Made by Edgar Anstey’s British Transport Films in 1951, this 23-minute short details a London outing undertaken by the employees of a Leicester shoe factory. Though thematically similar to People on Sunday it is sufficiently different stylistically so as to stand out in its own right and never feel like a mere belated addition. Touristic in essence, This Year - London shares with the best of the BTF’s efforts a warm sense of humour and a pleasingly unfussy approach (see also Making Tracks which appeared on the BFI’s disc of Ken Loach’s The Navigators). Of course, it all seems incredibly quaint nowadays and was clearly made for a specific audience - it can’t resist a nod back to the blitz and living through wartime - yet it’s a hugely pleasurable means of whiling away a half an hour and, moreover, has been given a superb presentation by the BFI which bodes well for their forthcoming (at time of writing) BTF compilations.
This Year - London comes without optional English subtitles.