Codirected by filmmakers Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, the 1930 silent masterpiece People on Sunday is a rare fusion of documentary and narrative genres. The film’s forerunners include the cinematic paeans to cities such as Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta, Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, and, of course, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. All of these films share a trailblazing curiosity for the idiosyncratic potentialities of cinema: the rapidly growing medium was as much a subject of these films as their actual content and imagery. By exploring what only film can do—with its indexical relationship to what it records and its ability to hop around in space and time, fluidly and otherwise, through montage—these films broke new ground in the world of cinema. But what makes People on Sunday stand out is the way in which Siodmak, Ulmer, and scriptwriter Billy Wilder, fuse this experimentation, the rigor of Soviet montage techniques, and grand portraits of sprawling metropolises on the one hand; with a fairly straightforward, joke-studded narrative about twentysomethings in Weimar Berlin who embark on a sunny double date to one of the lakes on the outskirts of the city on the other. This simple yet ingenious combination of the experimental documentary approach and a linear narrative mode sets the film apart from its predecessors. The combination has implications beyond discussions of filmic genre and stylistics, however. By merging these two forms, People on Sunday also bridges the particular story of the young friends with a more universal sensibility, represented by cityscape montages that appear throughout the film, a bridge that bears significance for a city and a country that were trying to find its identity in the wake of one world war as the seeds of another grew almost invisibly. The film spans the divide between the particular and the universal through free-associative montages that act as interludes in the friends’ trip to the lake, carrying the film away from the specificity of the double date and opening it up to the entire city in the throes of figuring out its interbellum identity. Blending together these elements, People on Sunday models a kind of collectivity rooted in wonderment and leisure, rather than one based on a perceived common threat or struggle.
The first and last ways in which the filmmakers evoke this positive collectivity is by bookending the film with nods to working life. The film’s opening titles tell us that we are about to watch “a film without actors.” Indeed, all of the leads were amateurs who had (allegedly) never before appeared in front of a camera. Despite their beauty and charm on-screen, it is as though you might run into these young people on the streets of Berlin. When we see the actors, intertitles tell us each’s name and profession. The cherub-faced Erwin Splettstößer is a taxi driver; Brigitte Borchert, a record seller; Wolfgang von Waltershausen, a travelling wine salesman; Christl Ehlers, an extra in films; and Annie Schreyer, a model. It is significant that they all work, to some extent, with the public. You might have had Erwin as your taxi driver—he actually was one—or you might buy a record from Brigitte. Despite initially identifying the characters by their professions, People on Sunday does not share such intimate details of their lives that we might get lost in the particularities thereof. We learn just enough to identify them beyond name and appearance but not so much that we could get caught up in each character’s individual personhood. The film’s swift acknowledgement of their professions strongly implies that work is less important to their subjectivity than the enjoyment that the film chronicles. It is also fitting temporally in that the film begins on a Saturday, with the work week wrapping up, generating the sense that time of the film and the viewer’s experience are in sync. This has likely strengthened the bond between the Weimar-era audience who saw (and loved) the film and the characters. When the film closes, it again conjures the idea of a collectivity, this time including not only the viewers and the actors but all of Berlin. “4 million people” one of the closing intertitles proclaims, “all waiting for Sunday,” the day of the week that the film leads us to associate with leisure and wonderment. That this collective anticipation and excitement would be obliterated by the rise of National Socialism is one of the tragic ironies of the film.
But how does People on Sunday create this culture of leisure and wonderment? One major instruments is montage. The film is rife with passages draw us away from the main event of the narrative– the double date–and dive into the popular life in Berlin.
One interesting instances involves a passage about halfway through the film. In the midst of a city montage that includes some of Berlin’s statues and memorials, we come to another lake where people are splashing around. A photographer standing on the shore is making portraits, and the lens of the film becomes one with the lens of the photographer’s camera. We see his subjects smiling for the camera, the sunlight playing off their faces. After a few seconds of watching each subject pose, the film freezes a frame and seems to increase the exposure so that the subjects’ faces glow white. What makes this sequence significant is not only the way in which it gives us a glimpse into the way in which the advent of photography bred a whole new kind of self-consciousness in mass culture but also the way in which the sequence plays with our sense of time. Such passages, when the film drifts away from the friends at the lake and the camera wanders around the city, lead People on Sunday off on playful detours where the flow of narrative time is suspended and the timeless quality of the montage is able to unfold. In this particular sequence with the photographer, our sense of time is gleefully fiddled with yet again. When the photographer snaps his photo and the image lingers on the portrait sitter’s face, the flow of filmic time, having already diverged from the linearity of the narrative, is again shifted in two more ways. The most evident way is that time is momentarily frozen. Introducing still images into a sequence of moving image usually leads to the sense that time has been paused. This is especially true in silent films in which no music guides us through time. The less obvious way is that the stills of the portraits leap forward in time to the moment of developing the photographs. Now we take it for granted that pictures can be viewed immediately, but in the 1930s photographers worked with a lot of distance between the moment a picture was taken and when it was developed. In this sequence, cinema becomes the medium that enables a magical kind of time travel and suspension, where one can drift away from the linear order of events into a more leisurely, free-flowing modality, and in that drift feel time paused and overcome. This kind of transfiguration is one of the magical qualities of cinema, which People on Sunday helped discover and share with the generations of viewers who remain thrilled to the film.