Intro and Q&A with Peter Schwartz on “People on Sunday”

PETER: I’d like to start by thanking Yangqiao Lu not only for the opportunity to show you all one of my absolute favorite movies, but also for letting me get on the stage of a theatre that I have been visiting since I was a college freshman in 1985.

I chose these two films because I think they go together well – I’ll tell you why and how in a moment. I think I’ll start by giving you some historical background on the film People on Sunday, then some stylistic things to look for and some matters of content, and then I’ll say a little about Jay Leyda and his short film A Bronx Morning.

People on Sunday was the first project by a group of young people living in Berlin in 1929, five of whom went on to become major players in Hollywood. Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer were the directors. Robert Siodmak was the primary director. He went on to make a great many films, of which the best known may be The Killers. Ulmer made a whole lot of B-films, none of which I have seen. The script was written – well – nobody is quite sure exactly what the division of labor was, because as with many films from long ago that have become legendary, everybody who worked on it has a different account of who did what. Billy Wilder said there was a 7-page script, someone else said there was a 30-page script, the actors seem to have said there was no script whatsoever, and that they were making things up in cafés as they went, which is probably the most likely thing. Billy Wilder was, with Siodmak, one of the screenwriters. When he was interviewed in the early 2000s about his role in making the film, Fred Zinnemann – who went on to make, among other things, High Noon – said he mostly just carried the camera around. Eugen Schüfftan was the cameraman; he really was quite a genius of a cameraman. He worked with Fritz Lang, as one of the cameramen on Metropolis. In the course of working on that film, he invented a technique, a filming trick that came to bear his name, the Schüfftan effect, which has to do with filming live action through glass partly painted with background, so the scenery didn’t have to be all built.

Anyway, these men got together and made this film, on Sundays, because they were working six-day weeks at other jobs, on an absolute shoestring budget. They were scrounging around for funds; apparently, the budget was about 9,000 marks, which could have been something on the order of $4000 – that’s a very rough ballpark estimate.

They began making the film in June 1929. They filmed mostly during the summer. Production was done by December 1929. It passed the censors, and was first shown in a major Berlin theater in February 1930.

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The film itself was a great success – unexpectedly; they were terrified that nobody would like it, but it turned out everybody liked it, and it has actually become part of what I would call the “Berlin imaginary” or the “Weimar imaginary.” It’s a film that people think of when they think of what life was like in Weimar Germany and Weimar Berlin. It’s a film that Berliners tend to kind of know by visual heart, and identify with. I know that I lived in Berlin for a year twenty years ago, and I tend to see my life in Berlin through this film. It’s part of how people imagine Berlin, to the present day. Has anyone been following Babylon Berlin, this wonderful German miniseries on Netflix? They’ve done two seasons. It takes place in 1929 and 1930 Berlin, and People on Sunday actually shows up twice in movie theater scenes, people are watching it. And apparently the directors screened the film for the actors to give them a sense of what life was like in Berlin in 1929.

The actors were non-actors. They were people who’d never acted in films, and with some minor exceptions, they never did again. One of them tried his luck in film acting. I’ve seen some clips, and he shouldn’t have (laughter). But they really worked in this film. The reason the directors chose non-actors, they said it was because they couldn’t afford to pay actors. That may be what generated the film story, which was written after an idea by Robert Siodmak’s brother, Curt Siodmak. They said they couldn’t afford actors and wanted ordinary people, so they decided to make a story about ordinary people. This really is a story about ordinary people doing ordinary things on an ordinary Sunday in Berlin, and the film rhetorically makes this point again and again: “The story you are seeing with these five young people is the sort of story that happens to all sorts of Berliners all the time. It is typical.” And this typicality is characteristic of a particular genre of filmmaking that was quite popular in Germany and in fact in Europe at that time, which is the “city symphony film,” also called sometimes the “cross-section film,” the best known example of which is Walther Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City of 1927, which is a documentary film showing a day in the life of Berlin, obviously assembled from footage taken over a number of days. There is a little bit of acting but mostly it’s documentary. There is a lot in this film, People on Sunday, that’s reminiscent of that film. There are entire sequences that are really strictly speaking documentary, of Berlin. They’re intercut with the narrative, the plot, and they support it, but the plot is not actually directly integrated into these sequences. These sequences are there to suggest that this is what everybody is doing.

The city symphony film was a genre that was very popular in the 1920s. The first one, called Manhatta, was made in 1921 about Manhattan, by Charles Sheeler, the painter, and Paul Strand, the photographer. Ruttmann’s film from 1927 (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City) is well known. The reason I couldn’t show it to you, though it would be the most appropriate film to show, is because it’s an hour long. So instead, I chose to show you another city symphony film, much shorter, 11 minutes. It’s by Jay Leyda, one of two documentary films he made, in 1931; it’s called A Bronx Morning. It’s very clearly inspired by the aesthetic of other city symphony films, most of which were noticeably influenced by Soviet montage editing techniques, as you will see also in this case.

Jay Leyda was many things. He was a film archivist; he taught film history in NYU from 1972 to 1988. He studied film directing with Eisenstein in Moscow in the early 1930s, and he used this film to apply for those classes. He worked in the Chinese National Film Archive (China Film Archive) in Beijing for about 5 years. His wife was Chinese. He wrote two books, which were really pioneer works in film history; one was Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film in 1960 and the other is Dianying: Account of Films and the Film Audience in China in 1972. He also did documentary histories and biographies of Melville and Dickinson and Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky, so he was kind of all over the place.

Aside from that People on Sunday and A Bronx Morning are both city symphony films with similar 1920s montage aesthetics, one thing I’d like to draw your attention to in both films is although they feel quite idyllic from our current perspective – I know I feel nostalgic when I watch them, both for a lost Berlin that was wiped out by the Nazis and for a lost Bronx (even though I’m from Manhattan) – that shouldn’t hide the fact that these are films that represent societies that were really in crisis. Times were not good. The German film was made before the Great Crash of October 1929, but you will notice, if you are watching, that people are not very well off. Some of them have jobs, and some of them don’t, which causes some tension between people in the plot. Money is tight, cigarettes are expensive. And it’s the same with the Leyda film. People are not well off, shops are going out of business. So that’s something worth paying attention to as you watch the films.

Q&A (excerpt)

Why don’t all dialogues have corresponding inter-titles?
PETER: This is a late silent film. The silent film era came to a jarring halt in 1927, for the most part, with the release of The Jazz Singer. But in Germany particularly, there were a couple of years, three years maybe, where people were sometimes still making silent films. This one was low budget, so they couldn’t afford anything else. But other filmmakers stuck for a while, to an idiom they knew they were good at: Fritz Lang, for example made his first sound film, M, in 1931, which is also, like this movie, partly documentary; partly silent film, partly sound. Charlie Chaplin made Modern Times in 1936, with a mix of sound and silent stuff. In silent films generally, there can be a certain amount of obvious spoken dialogue that’s not rendered in the inter-titles because the meaning is being communicated in other ways. It (a corresponding inter-title) was not felt to be needed. Actually, when I teach my interwar German film class, I make points about silent film acting by showing a segment of People on Sunday, the part where they jump into the water, and some other films from around the same time, with the sound off, and I ask my students to guess whether it’s a sound film or a silent film. They always know this is a silent film, because they know that they’re not missing any of the meaning.

In relation to Eisenstein and Soviet montage
PETER: The scene in which the Reichswehr marches past the Victory Column and then an older man beholds statues in the Tiergarten is one of my least favorite scenes in the film. I think they were trying to imitate Eisenstein there. Battleship Potemkin had came out in 1925 and had been a big hit in Germany in 1926, and this is where a lot of the German montage aesthetic was coming from. That scene is, I think, a parody of the lion rising montage in Potemkin. He’s looking at August the Strong, and he’s supposed to be an older German nationalist type person. I think he’s supposed to be a little silly. He’s certainly overacting.

NED (Brattle): There are definitely some interesting juxtapositions in the film, like when they presumably have sex in the forest and it cuts to trash. They were definitely being playful with the montage.

PETER: Yeah, I think they were playing with the already existing film idioms. One thing about the films that came after The Jazz Singer but before the end of silent film era was that they had the benefit of 35 years of the development of the silent film idiom, and they really could do exciting things. Another one of my favorites is Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York, from 1928. It’s a brilliant film using the codes of silent film. Or Murnau’s Sunrise in 1927. This is the height of silent film; just as it’s dying, it reaches the height of its ability to express. My favorite scene in People on Sunday is Erwin’s and Annie’s fight with that dripping water and all those pet peeves that make them angry at each other. My students are 19 on the average, and they don’t get this (laughter). I have to explain it to them, but I could tell from the response that you did get it.

On the camera work
PETER: Schüfftan was brilliant. The German filmmaking community was a tight-knit crew of real craftspeople. The same people were working on a lot of films. Originally, another director, Rochus Gliese, was supposed to direct People on Sunday; he left after two weeks of filming, for reasons I can’t recall. But he had been working earlier with Murnau in Hollywood making Sunrise. These were people who had experience. Schüfftan was the oldest, he was I think 34, with Billy Wilder and the rest around 22. If you buy the Criterion Collection DVD, there’s a city symphony film Schüfftan made on his own, which has beautiful camera work but which makes no sense. So it’s good that he met people with good stories for his brilliant camera work.

On the period of hyperinflation
PETER: As a reflection of the period of hyperinflation I highly recommend Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. It basically transforms the social and economic disruption and the feeling of being at the mercy of something you can’t understand into the figure of the master criminal Dr. Mabuse, played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the guy who played the mad scientist in Metropolis. He uses all the communication and transportation technology of Berlin to manipulate the stock market to make it rise and fall while remaining invisible. So that is THE film that, I think, most fairly expresses the feeling of hyperinflation. It was made in 1922, a little before the absolute height of the hyperinflation in 1923, but it’s definitely the film that’s most relevant to the inflation.

On physiognomy
PETER: It’s a generalization, but the people who started on making silent films and then moved to sound films tended to retain their sense of gesture and expression. One thing that is very characteristic of this film and also very characteristic of Weimar is the focus on physiognomy, that is on these really distinctive faces, not just expression in the faces, but all these really distinctive faces of Berlin people. There’s that very odd scene with the young men spanking each other, apparently they were filming one day, and they happened upon these people spanking each other (laughter). There are ways in which weird homosocial behaviors like that ended up in Nazism, but that’s a long story. The focus on physiognomy and expression was a real concern in the silent era. Béla Balázs, for example, who was one of the earliest theorists of silent film, wrote a couple of books – one in 1924, one in 1930 – theorizing film. He focused heavily on how silent film was schooling people’s ability to read facial expression in ways that he felt they had lost because of the printed word, because people’s skills to do that had atrophied. He was very unhappy when sound film came in. When I am teaching, in the series I mentioned of things that I show without sound, I show a clip from Eyes Wide Shut. Tom Cruise – the guy does not emote. Nothing is going on on his face. Somebody told me Kubrick just does that, but I think you can sense that something is lost. In this period, there was this focus on physiognomy and facial types of expression. For example, the photographs of August Sander, a photographer based in Cologne, he photographed German social types and sort of catalogued them throughout the Weimar period. His photography is amazing. The Nazis, of course, were interested in facial types in a different and really nefarious way. It was all part of the feeling of the time, an interest of the time. It does have something to do with the fact that everything was going haywire socially. Historically, interest in physiognomy tends to surface when you can’t read identity off of other things. At the end the of 18th century, this happened too when it became more difficult to place people based on their clothing, so people got interested in people’s faces.

On the use of still photography in People on Sunday
PETER: I think the key to the meaning of the sequence of still photographs in the film is the way the series ends in pictures of one’s grandparents, in an old-fashioned sort of airbrushed-type photographs. What is being said is like in a Kodak commercial: your memories are being made here. It’s Billy Wilder looking at the difference between reality and its image. There is a kind of ironic, or snarky, or humorous aspect to the fact that none of the people who are being photographed actually looks like those air-brushed grandmothers when they were young. Dziga Vertov actually did a very similar thing with a somewhat different meaning in Man with a Movie Camera. There’s a moment when he starts freezing the frame, alternating between film, frozen frames, and then the editing of that film, but the purpose of that is different. Partly it’s symbolically representing the death of a certain class of Russians that he felt were making it a little too well in 1929 – he’s saying they’re going to be dead like everything photographed is eventually dead, not alive like film. Anyway, it means something different in this film. I don’t know if these filmmakers had seen Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, or if it’s just a coincidence that they are both playing with film versus still photography.

 

 

Peter J. Schwartz is Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Boston University, where he also teaches courses on film. He is the author of After Jena: Goethe’s Elective Affinities and the End of the Old Regime (2010), and of articles on Goethe and his age, the Faust tradition, Georg Büchner, the films of Michael Haneke, and Aby Warburg’s archive of World War I – the so-called Kriegskartothek. He’s also recently written an iconographic study of Chinese Communist paper money and Soviet silent film. His translation from the German of André Jolles’s classic work of genre theory, Simple Forms (1929), came out with Verso Books in 2017, and he is currently working on essays about Aby Warburg and cinema, Warburg’s thinking on the relationship of propaganda and divination, and dialogues with the Devil in Goethe, Dostoevsky, Melville, Thomas Mann, Gombrowicz and elsewhere. 

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