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People on Sunday – The Criterion Collection #569 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

June 21, 2011 by  



“People on Sunday” is a wonderful classic blending silent cinema with a documentary style featuring 1929 Weimar-era Germany.  Created by a group of young German filmmakers who would go on to reach success in cinema years later.  An important film that is very much deserving of a Criterion Collection release! I personally recommend “People on Sunday” as a must-buy for any cineaste!

Image courtesy of © Praesens-Film AG. 2011 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: People on Sunday – The Criterion Collection #569 (Menschen am Sonntag)

YEAR OF FILM: 1930

DURATION: 73 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: Black and White, Silent with German Intertitles and English Subtitles, 1:33:1 Aspect Ratio

COMPANY: Janus Films/THE CRITERION COLLECTION

RELEASE DATE: June 28, 2011

Directed by Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinneman, Rochus Gliese

Written by Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder

Produced by Seymour Nebenzal, Edward G. Ulmer

Music by Otto Stenzeel

Cinematography by Eugen Schuftan

Art Direction by Moritz Seder

Starring:

Erwin Splettstößer as Taxi Driver

Brigitte Borchert as Record Seller

Wolfgang von Waltershausen as Wine Seller

Christl Ehlers as an Extra in Films

Annie Schreyer as Model

Years before they became major players in Hollywood, a group of young German filmmakers—including eventual noir masters Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer and future Oscar winners Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann—worked together on the once-in-a-lifetime collaboration People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag). This effervescent, sunlit silent, about a handful of city dwellers (a charming cast of nonprofessionals) enjoying a weekend outing, offers a rare glimpse of Weimar-era Berlin. A unique hybrid of documentary and fictional storytelling, People on Sunday was both an experiment and a mainstream hit that would influence generations of film artists around the world.

An intriguing, cynical silent film featuring a wonderful glimpse of life during Weimar Republic-era Germany and created through the collaboration of young German filmmakers who would go on to have successful film careers a few years later.

The film’s title “People on Sunday” (Menschen am Sonntag) is a 1930 silent film that featured a collaboration of Curt Siodmak (who would later be known for his “Wolf Man” and “Invisible Man” films), Robert Siodmak (who would later be known for “The Killers”, “The Spiral Staircase” and “Criss Cross”), Edgar G. Ulmer (known for his noir films “Detour”, “The Black Cat”, “The Strange Woman”), cinematographer Fred Zinnemann (known for directing “High Noon”, “From Here to Eternity”, “The Day of the Jackal”), Eugen Schufftan (known for his cinematography on “The Hustler”, “Eyes Without a Face”, “Port of Shadows” and “It Happened Tomorrow”) and Billy Wilder (“Some Like It Hot”, “Sunset Blvd.”, “The Apartment”, “Double Indemnity”).  And the most interesting thing about this film when it comes to its filmmakers is that many of these filmmakers have differing viewpoints on who was responsible for the film and are vocal of who put more work in and who didn’t.

But if there is one thing that audiences are in agreement on, it’s the fact that this film is a timeless classic and a glimpse to an era that is no more.  But the film is also seen as a precursor to independent film.  A film created with hardly any financing (financing came from Seymour Nebenzal, a cousin of the Siodmak’s and a future collaborator of Billy Wilder), no-name actors and filmed on several Sundays during the summer of 1929.  The film was also regarded by film critics as an accurate portrayal of Berlin at the time but with it’s final intertitle, an ironic way of words that was meant to be right way to end the film but also could have another meaning for those of us who watch the film and realize what happened to Berlin and many Jews living in Germany several years later.

A film that was created with people who had day jobs which were portrayed in the film, portraying people living their lives in Berlin in the summer of 1929 and pretty much a joint collaboration of a group of friends from Berlin who wanted to make a film together and did it.

Ironically, “People on Sunday” was created back during the Weimar Republic of Germany, and Berlin as shown in this film would drastically change several years later during Hitler’s reign in 1933, the filmmakers of Jewish descent, living in Germany, including one of the actresses Christl Ehlers would all flee Germany years after the film was made while some of their family members, especially for Billy Wilder, would die years later in  the Auschwitz extermination camp.

So, “People on Sunday” is an important film for it being a cinema film that captured Berlin-life, Berlin youth but also, in every sense of the word, an indie film created with a small budget, no-name talent and yet was able to achieve critical acclaim.   And there is no doubt that this silent film is worthy of being part of Criterion Collection’s dedication in providing important classic and contemporary films in America.

“People on Sunday” gives us a look of what is taking place on a Saturday morning and shows us a busy Berlin.  We are introduced to the film’s five characters, Wolfgang (a wine dealer) sees a beautiful woman named Christl (who is a film extra) and is smitten by her and noticing that she is waiting for someone who has not arrived to meet with her.  So, he asks her out and teases her about being stood up but receiving an answer from the actress that she never get stood up.  But he invites her to come join him on a picnic to which she agrees.

We are then introduced to a taxi driver who receives a phone call from his girlfriend (who is a model) and wants to go to the cinema.  The taxi driver doesn’t want to go because he wants to wait the next Tuesday as the cinema will be showing a Greta Garbo film (who he loves).

We see the model who looks bored of her life, staying inside with no one to be with her.  We see the taxi driver return home and we see that the two don’t exactly have the best relationship.  She wants to have fun, he doesn’t.  But the two are about to go out and have fun and before they go, he disagrees with how she wears her hat and the two get into a heated argument.  He takes a photo of her favorite actor and puts shaving foam all over it, disgusted by his actions, she begins ripping up his Greta Garbo photo collection and the next thing you know, both are tearing up each other’s pictures of their favorite talent.

Meanwhile, Wolfgang (the wine dealer) shows up and watches the two fight (without any verbal argument).  So, instead of going out, the two end up gambling and as for the model, she just sits in the bed and feels depressed.

Wolfgang ends up inviting his friend, the taxi driver to the countryside, which he agrees to.  The model is also invited but on the following day after work, she oversleeps and as for the taxi driver, he joins Wolfgang to find out that he invited a beautiful actress to a picnic and she brought her friend, who records at a record shop.

The four then go to Nikolassee for some R&R to swim at the lake but when Wolfgang tries to make a pass for the actress and kisses her, she is upset and slaps him.  So, he moves on to the next person that he can, her friend, the record shop girl, which makes the actress jealous.

As the four swim and have a picnic, we try to see as both women try to vie for Wolfgang’s affection, but being an experienced man, he knows how to balance his time with both women.

But the four try to enjoy themselves a day before everyone goes back to work on Monday.

VIDEO:

It’s important to note that “People on Sunday” is a film that presented to those working on the restoration project as challenging and difficult.  Presented in black and white (1:33:1), as the original negative had damage, the restoration project had to take parts from other badly damaged versions of the film from different countries and piece each frame together in order to come close to the original film and its duration.

For the most part, the contrast of the film is wonderful.  Blacks are nice and deep and the grays and white levels are really good.  Not to say that the picture is pristine because it’s not.  Bare in mind that this latest restoration is the piecing of many frames that came from different negative sources from different countries, you’re going to notice a slight bit of flickering, nothing bad.  But considering that the film is 80-years-old and knowing a lot of films on nitrate filmed back in the ’20s weren’t taken care of all that well and the fact that this is not a big budget film with top talent, it’s amazing that this film could look so good today!

According to the Criterion Collection, the new digital transfer was created from a 35 mm mute print struck from the restoration negative provided by the EYE Film Institute Netherlands.  It was scanned in 2K resolution on a Spirit 4K Datacine played at 24 frames per second and then digitally converted to the EYE Film Institute’s recommended speed of 22 frames per second.

Color correction was done using DaVinci Resolve software and thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system while Digital Vision’s Phoenix system was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.

Also according to the Criterion Collection, the restoration negative used for this release was created in 1997 by Martin Koerber, working at the Netherlands Filmmuseum (now known as the EYE Film Institute Netherlands).  A high quality original nitrate print of the Dutch version of “People on Sunday” served as the basis for the restoration.  In order to come as close as possible to the original complete German version of the film, shots were also taken from numerous elements at the Fondazione Cineteca Italiana, the Cinematheque royal de Belgique and the Cinematheque suisse.

Koerber’s version follows the pioneering work done in the 1980s by Enno Patalas at the Munich Filmmuseum, but he was able to locate and incorporate about 150 meters of additional footage.  The restoration negative was printed at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“People on Sunday – The Criterion Collection #569” is  silent film but you get two scores.  One is a silent-era style version (which was my preference) by the Mont Alto Orchestra which was recorded in March 2011 and another that is a modernized version by the Elena Kats-Chernin, performed by the Czech Film Orchestra recorded in 2000.

Personally, considering the fact that a few people that I have talked to, who have watched this film back then, watched it with no music accompaniment.  Although I do own a few silents with no music (and some with bad music), I’m grateful for the Criterion Collection for providing two excellent music scores.

It would have been nice to have a third, which would be Trio Bravo+’s score for the 2002 screening of the film but for the most part, I’m quite pleased with both scores, especially the Mont Alto Orchestra version.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“People on Sunday – The Criterion Collection #569” on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:

  • Weekend am Wannsee – (31:14) Gerald Koll’s 2000 documentary about the making of “People on Sunday” and features interviews with Brigitte Borchert (who plays the record store girl) and writer Curt Siodmak and Martin Koeber, the film restorer.
  • Ins Blau Hineien – (35:30) A short 1931 film by “People on Sunday” cinematographer Eugene Schufftan.

EXTRAS:

“People on Sunday – The Criterion Collection #569” comes with a 30-page booklet featuring the following essay “Young People Like Us” by Noah Isenberg and “Making People on Sunday” with differing accounts by Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak.

“People on Sunday” is an absorbing form of cinema that attracts different types of audiences.  While I can’t call it a masterpiece, it is a time capsule that shows us of a Berlin that would no longer be the same a few years later.  A film that was built upon friendships and achieving cinema but due to the change of the country’s politics and the creation of Hitler’s Third Reich, these friends would go on their separate ways as they tried to escape Nazi Germany because of their Jewish descent.

This film is a hybrid silent film and documentary but it has elements that one can easily watch and be entertained.

For those who are wanting a silent film with a storyline, you have a story about two male friends going out with two new female friends for some R&R on a Sunday at a lake and jealousy develops but of course, there is more to this story as one man has a girlfriend that he doesn’t treat all that well at home (and oversleeps), while his other male friend, the wine maker who goes after the actress and kisses her but ends up being slapped and then goes for her friend, the record shop girl.

Then you have the Avant-Garde style of filmmaking derived from an Eisenstein style of filmmaking and shots of objects, surroundings that show an artistic style of cinematographer Eugen Schufftan.   Also, it’s important to note that this is an independent film before “indie” films came to play.  These young filmmakers came up with the idea while at a cafe.

And because these filmmakers didn’t have much money, they hired everyday people to be part of the film (some who went on to acting and others who didn’t) and in the end, the film became a major success for these young filmmakers and eventually each of them went on to bigger film projects.

And for those who are interested in Germany, the film also captures the Weimar Republic three years before it was replaced by Fascism and Hitler’s Third Reich.  A look at how society was back then, during a period of liberal democracy and its filmmakers (who happen to be Jewish living in Germany) not fully aware of what they captured on film would show a side of Germany which would be gone in three years.

But there are other things about the film that stay in my mind.  One scene features Christl Ehlers (who plays the character of a girl who plays an extra in film) sewing on her swimsuit before getting into the water, scenes of older technology with the windup portable record player, scenes showing hints of sexuality, scenes of people not having much money and even splitting cigarettes and sharing wine from the same glass.   Of course, the film is quite cynical and is a wonderful look at German youth before the change and because it was made during the Weimar-era, there is no hint of danger or anything of wartime.  Just people living their everyday life.

And for me, unlike the Mitchell and Kenyon films where everyone loved to be in front of the camera and would do what they can to be filmed, there is no hint of that in “People on Sunday”.  It’s as if the camera was hidden and people were normal, nor are they looking directly at the camera.  Granted, you have random people making faces towards the camera but it’s all closeup as opposed to everyone crowding and pushing just to get their shot in the camera.

For silent film fans, whenever you can get a glimpse of society at that time, all captured on film, it’s a wonderful experience.  But to get documentary-style footage of a Germany post-World War I, early documentaries are something you rarely see from Europe (the best early, silent documentary work showcasing early European society is probably from Mitchell and Kenyon in the UK covering the early 1900’s and Marcel Carne’s short “Nogent ou l’Eldorado du Dimanche”) as a lot of footage is lost or destroyed due to the instability of nitrate film.

But the efficacy of “People on Sunday” is because of its non-traditional style of filmmaking, combining a story with a documentary style footage.  Critics loved it back in 1930 and I have no doubt that many of us today will have a sigh of relief that so much has went towards the restoration of the film.   I personally have only read about the film prior to watching it and to finally watch it on Blu-ray and to see the wonderful contrast, to hear the beautiful musical scores included in this Blu-ray release is wonderful!

It’s important to note that the original German version was no longer intact due to deterioration and from using copies of other versions from different countries (that were equally as bad), fortunately missing footage was taken from those various negative sources and all the elements put together in one film.  Of course, since the restoration of the film, more footage has been found (documentary footage) but not added because it is not known of where it should be placed in the film.

But for any silent film fan and historian, the release of “People on Sunday” by the Criterion Collection is magnificent!  And equally as impressive are the inclusion of the two special features which include “Weekend am Wannsee”, Gerald Koll’s 2000 documentary of the film with interviews with Brigitte Borchert (who plays the record store girl in the film) and writer Curt Siodmak.  Also, included is “Ins Blaue hineien, a 36-minute short from 1931 by cinematographer Eugen Schufftan which features elements similar to “People on Sunday”.

Also, it was great to have two scores included with this release.  The Mont Alto Orchestra was my preference as it captured a more silent-era style but you also get a modernized score with Elena Kats-Chernin and the Czech Film Orchestra’s score as well.

Overall, “People on Sunday” was a wonderful film to watch and enjoy, not just for its story but its cinematography but also showcasing society.  You juxtapose this film with Eugen Schufftan’s 1931 short film “Ins Blaue hinein” (which is included as a special feature) and what you get primarily is a lot of trees and neighborhoods, while the former shows society in everyday life in the city of Berlin.  While I understand those who are not really into silent films, let alone watching footage of the distant past, But for those who are open to silent cinema and are curious of seeing Germany ala the Weimar Republic era will find this film enjoyable, intriguing and highly entertaining.  Also, feeling that this is a release that is  a worthy addition to the Criterion Collection.

I personally recommend “People on Sunday” as a must-buy for any cineaste!

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