People on Sunday is a who’s who of German emigres who eventually make a major impact on Hollywood production. The script is credited to Billie (later, of course, Billy) Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Fred Zinnemann are credited as co-directors. That’s a lot of classic 40s-50s cinema and several great noirs among them all.
People on Sunday is an odd film in that it’s a fiction-documentary hybrid in a realist way that seems a far cry from what these gentlemen would all go on to achieve. Wilder, in the liner notes for the Criterion release, enthuses over the low-budget production and the non-professional actors in a way that makes him sound like the Zavattini of early German cinema. While Wilder’s first feature as a director, the French-made Mauvaise Graine (1934) has a similar ethos, this is the same Wilder who gets his first studio production in Hollywood in 1942 (The Major and the Minor) and never looks back to these run-and-gun roots again (unless you count his brief documentary foray in 1945’s Death Mills).
Ulmer, maybe most noted for his B film noirs (most notably Detour in 1945), came from a production design background, working with Murnau on Metropolis and Sunrise. The influence of the latter can really be seen here in its sun-soaked, naturalistic mise-en-scene.
Perhaps Zinnemann stayed closest to that which was achieved in People on Sunday, making The Wave in 1935 and also working with famed documentarian Robert Flaherty.
People on Sunday doesn’t strive for much beyond the title, and it’s this simplicity that makes it a success. It personalizes the narratives of earlier city symphony films (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Man With a Movie Camera), focusing on a group of five young men and women and making the city secondary.
Some of the beauty of the film comes from Eugen Schufftan’s excellent cinematography. The high-contrast look of some of the more intimate lake-side shots comes to mind immediately:
While the narrative is meandering – essentially a day at the beach – it still speaks to the mood of young love and freedom from the daily grind. There’s lust that wouldn’t be misplaced in a modern US comedy-
-and modern music (look, it’s 1930’s portable music player – the gramophone!):
The filmmakers make use of some imaginative transitions like this one, where the main characters laugh in a series of close-ups and medium shots-
-which leads to a new series of close-ups of random people laughing:
It’s essentially a graphic match, and one that allows us to now move fluidly to new people and new parts of the city; the subsequent shots-
-feel very much like the Vertov or Ruttmann films that preceded this one.
One of the better scenes follows a random photographer as he snaps portraits. Schufftan shoots them all in close-up, occasionally freezing the frame to mimic the photos:
It’s such a candid sequence, catching people either unawares or attempting to pose for the camera as they’d be want to do with any still photographer present.
It’s saying something that so much of People on Sunday is made up of close-ups. Wilder and Siodmak, again in the liner notes for the DVD, both speak about how this collective of filmmakers was a new approach, was separate from studio production, and was, in fact, one of the first ever independent films. The stark faces filling the frame are the people on Sunday, and as we see in the film, also the people on Saturday and Monday – the same people as those behind the camera.