Review: Menschen am Sonntag (1930)

Menschen am Sonntag (1930)

Directed by: Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Rochus Gliese, Curt Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann | 73 minutes | comedy, drama | Actors: Erwin Splettstößer, Brigitte Borchert, Wolfgang von Waltershausen, Christl Ehlers, Annie Schreyer, Kurt Gerron, Valeska Gert, Heinrich Gretler, Ernö Verebes

‘Accused’, ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and ‘Doctors’; the examples of so-called ‘scripted reality’ television are countless. The viewer is in fact misled by these kinds of programs. They think they are looking at true situations, but in reality there are actors at work with a pre-written scenario. This seems like something from the last few decades, but the phenomenon is almost as old as the movie itself. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the German capital Berlin had a vibrant film scene, where fictional classics such as those of Fritz Lang (‘Metropolis’, 1927 and ‘M’, 1931) and Josef von Sternberg (‘Der Blaue Engel’, 1930) as mushrooms sprouted, but where plenty of pioneering work was also done in the field of filming documentaries. Walter Ruttmann made ‘Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grossstadt’ in 1927, in which he captured the dynamic life in the German capital with his camera (note: about six years before National Socialism actually started to make its mark on everyday life to push). Three years after Ruttmann, a number of talented filmmakers joined forces to shoot ‘Menschen am Sonntag’ (1930), in which it seems that we follow a number of ordinary people who spend a pleasant Sunday afternoon together. In reality there was just a (not too tight) screenplay written by none other than Billy Wilder. Scripted reality before it was even invented.

As soon as Hitler came to power, the Jewish Wilder left for Hollywood, to build a fantastic body of work there. The gentlemen with whom he made ‘Menschen am Sonntag’ would also make a career in the US: directors are Robert Siodmak (‘The Killers’, 1946) and Edgar G. Ulmer (‘Detour’, 1945), the cinematography was done by Fred Zinnemann (‘From Here to Eternity’, 1953) and Eugen Schüfftan (‘The Hustler’, 1961) and the story was conceived by Curt Siodmak (‘The Wolf Man’, 1941). The film ‘without actors’, as announced in advance, was shot on a number of consecutive Sundays in 1929. The actors actually play themselves and were part of a collective that belonged to the current of the ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’. Thus produced the film itself, with minimal resources. Two men – taxi driver Edwin and wine seller Wolfgang – meet two women – Wolfgang’s new friend Christl and her best friend Brigitte – at a beach on Berlin’s Nikolasmeer. They flirt a bit. It’s not much more. Despite this, Wilder, Siodmak and co created a timeless composition that (young) people will still recognize today. You experience a relaxed afternoon with people you barely know, expectations are bubbling up – is something beautiful blossoming here? – but the question is whether those expectations will all come true.

Especially considering the simple means with which ‘Menschen am Sonntag’ was made, this is a high-quality and groundbreaking production. The camera records a sultry and sultry Sunday afternoon in Berlin between the two world wars, where apparently free morals reigned. From a stylistic point of view, ‘Menschen am Sonntag’ is a forerunner of the neo-realism that flourished in Italy in the 1940s and 1950s. With men like Zinnemann and Schüfftan behind the camera, it is not surprising that we are treated to beautiful images of 1920s Berlin, which together with an at times dreamy soundtrack set the mood. ‘Menschen am Sonntag’ is an important film in several respects. Not only is it (one of) the first film(s) in which a battalion of German and Austrian filmmakers first make their mark, before moving to the US due to changes in the political climate, where they would definitely establish their name. But this film has also been important in the development of (neo)realistic film movements. For a film without a real story, without sound or dialogue and without professional actors, ‘Menschen am Sonntag’ also manages to captivate surprisingly well.

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