March/April 2011

People on Sunday

A Film Without Actors

Introduction by Jessica Winter
Film stills courtesy of Janus Films

The German silent film People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag, 1930) bills itself as “a film without actors.” But it’s not without stars—future stars, that is, of the behind-the-camera variety. Billy Wilder, who wrote the spare screenplay, would become one of the preeminent writer-directors of midcentury Hollywood: he made Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard and, in the space of just over one glorious year, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. The codirectors were Robert Siodmak—who later helmed the sharp Burt Lancaster noirs The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1949)—and Edgar G. Ulmer, whose eclectic, super-low-budget résumé would eventually span melodramas, musicals, horror, and the grimy noir masterpiece Detour (1945). The assistant cinematographer was Fred Zinnemann, future director of High Noon (1952) and From Here to Eternity (1953). You can trace the DNA of a golden age in American cinema back to this quasi-documentary snapshot of a weekend in Berlin circa 1930.

People on Sunday itself was descended from the “city symphony” films of the 1920s, which conjured impressionistic portraits of lower Manhattan (Manhatta, 1921), Paris (Rien que les heures, 1926), and Berlin (Berlin: Symphony of a City, 1927). Most famously, Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (1929) fashioned a composite of several Soviet cities into a vision of utopian Marxism. By adding a loose narrative and nonprofessional actors essentially playing themselves (“Today they are all back in their own jobs,” an intertitle tells us), People on Sunday perches on a threshold between fiction and nonfiction—and, arguably, crafted a prototype for the neorealist films that flourished after World War II.

All of Berlin and its environs is People on Sunday’s set: trams and infrastructure, paddleboats and a bustling amusement park, and the ebb and flow outside Bahnhof Zoo Station. That’s where Wolfgang, a gadabout in breeches, first glimpses Christl, a comely film extra who may or may not be waiting for a suitor who never shows up. (Quite the pickup artist, Wolfgang circles Christl with proprietary interest for ages, finally sealing the deal with an ice cream.) They make a double date to the Nikolassee beach with a pair of his-and-her friends: Brigitte, a spirited record-store clerk (and a dead ringer for Scarlett Johansson), and Erwin, a plump and antic taxi driver. There’s also a fifth wheel of sorts: Erwin shares a dank basement bedsit with his model girlfriend, Annie, and their dynamic is as passive-aggressive as one might expect of a relationship in which one half spends most of her leisure time lolling in bed. Beset by a leaking faucet and general malaise, they exhaust their aggressions by proxy, each tearing up the movie-star stills the other has tacked to the wall. This scene underscores People on Sunday’s semi-documentary novelty: Annie is a movie fan, not a movie subject—yet here she is on our screen, taking a curling iron to Greta Garbo’s face.

Because its outlines are so slight and its dialogue so infrequent, People on Sunday often plays like silent cinema verité, with public space providing the stage for private moments. (And private parts: on the evidence of this film, interwar Berliners took a delightfully laissez-faire stand on child nudity in municipal parks.) Erwin canoodles with his portable phonograph and scratches himself contemplatively, while, some yards away, Brigitte and Wolfgang discover nature’s aphrodisiac qualities. Transpiring over a forty-eight-hour period ostensibly free of major events, the movie captures the vicissitudes of courtship with time-lapse acuity: the switched allegiances (Wolfgang, you cad!), the nervous etiquette (Christl and Wolf shake hands three separate times at the end of their first meeting), the seismographic spikes and plunges of moment-to-moment attraction. People on Sunday is timelessly perceptive about the intermingling of lust, hostility, and boredom that happens when a romantic chemical equation has some trouble finding its balance.

The performers in People on Sunday, particularly the women, seem self-conscious—a reminder that the cast is untried, but befitting a movie about people who are, to a certain extent, auditioning for each other’s affections. They smooth their hair and rearrange their limbs, they laugh a few beats too long, they shake their heads in wonderment at a pinecone. They skip toward the sensual pleasures of water and earth a bit too strenuously: Wolfgang’s horseplay tips over into minor battery, Brigitte tosses Wolfgang’s hat in the air with such determined insouciance that it snags in a treetop. The faint undertones of frenzy find a match in the insistent playfulness of the magpie musical score (by the prolific Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin), which features flavors of jazz and salsa and Mexican folk, patty-caking drumsticks and an oboe sashaying down the lakeside.

In this film without actors, the lead charismatic is not the lady-killer Wolfgang—though he’d surely disagree—but the doe-eyed, watchful Christl. Like all good screen heroines, she’s fascinating because she’s contradictory, at turns stroppy and reticent, childlike and world-weary, hard to parse beneath her cloche and baby fat. “Nobody stands me up!” she declares to Wolf, and one isn’t sure if she’s a shy girl feigning confidence or vice versa. Even her bad posture can seem like a pose, a hint that she has something to conceal—like, perhaps, how hurt and embarrassed she is by the reversals of matchmaking fortune unfolding on this particular Sunday. Christl Ehlers had the beginnings of an idiosyncratic star power, but People was her only major role; she fled to Paris in 1933, as did Siodmak and Wilder.

In a short piece for the New Yorker, Anthony Lane suggests that People on Sunday is a cousin to Jean Renoir’s sublime Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country, 1936), an unfinished adaptation of a Maupassant story. Renoir’s heroine, deep in verdant pastures, anxiously tries to articulate “a tenderness for the grass, the water, the trees. A vague sort of yearning—you know? Like a catch in the throat.” People on Sunday leaves the same catch because of its moment in history: Berlin is running out of daylight. “Wolf, how about next Sunday?” Brigitte asks her new sweetheart toward movie’s end, her eyes hungry with hopeful anticipation and the blithe, young assumption that there’s a future.

—Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a senior editor at O, The Oprah Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Slate, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, Film Comment, and many other publications.

Film stills courtesy of Janus Films

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