Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, Germany 1930)

This is a rather different sort of film from those produced in Germany at the giant UFA studios. A low-budget independent film with no special effects or gigantic sets: ordinary young people on an ordinary 1920s Sunday. Then one notices the credits – young filmmakers on their first outing with film: Robert and Kurt Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Fred Zinnemann, all to become successful Hollywood filmmakers. They do have the help of two experienced German film craftsmen, Rochus Gliese and Eugen Schüfftan.

The cast are young non-professionals: “a film about Berlin, about its people, about everyday things that we all know. First we consider using young actors. No: the people have to be authentic. So we start searching . . .” (Billy Wilder quoted in a 1930 newspaper). They find Erwin, a taxi driver: Brigitte who works in a record-shop; Wolfgang, a travelling salesman; and Christi, who actually works as a film extra.

The film introduces us to the main characters as they end the working week at their jobs. Then on the Sunday they all spend their free day at the local resort of Lake Wansee. And we follow a typical day’s leisure of young Berliners. Much of the film was shot on the actual locations, in the city and at the resort. Together with the young people this gives the film a real sense of freshness, even eighty years on.

The original release was a silent, without a soundtrack, though sound had already arrived in Germany. So it would have enjoyed a musical accompaniment. At that point it was 2,014 metres in length. However, the film suffered cuts, including the censorship of some scenes. By the time of the revival in silent film in the 1980s surviving prints only ran to about 1600 metres. In 1997 the Nederlands Filmmuseum, working with other archives produced a restoration of 1,839 metres. This now runs for 73 minutes.

Even without the interest in seeing early work by a number of distinguished directors and writers the film is worth seeing. It is an unassuming portrait of Berlin and its working people in the last days of Weimar. It sense of realism looks forward to realist tendencies that grace 1930s French Cinema and the later Italian Neo-realism.

The National Media Museum has a bfi print of the film on Sunday September 9th and there will be a live piano accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla.

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