Wednesday, January 16, 2013

People on Sunday (1930)

I used to have to cross a park to get from my home to the subway. The park was a busy one, popular with parents of little children. In the afternoons, especially on weekends, it would teem with life: the delirious, carefree activity of little people, and the more deliberate movement their parents, grandparents, and nannies: sitting or shambling after them, nudging them down slides, plucking them off high bars, zipping up their coats. Paying attention.

My girlfriend used to say that crossing that park was the highlight of her day. She works with children, and like anyone who truly loves them, she draws energy from their presence. They can exhaust her, but never completely, because they give her something in place of what they take away. She took her time when she passed the kids in the park, drinking in their exuberant spirit.

I was always in a hurry. I walk fast—I tend to focus on where I’m going. It’s not an entirely positive quality.

There were times when I did slow down, however; and those moments had a weird timelessness to them. They pulled me back from whatever mission I’d placed myself on. The kids, in their zeal for life, made me less zealous about any single thing in mine. I found my senses opening up too. I noticed subtler scents on the breeze; saw the way light touched leaves, and the way that changed when the breeze did. Sooner or later I’d continue my walk, headed to wherever I needed to be. But my day was always better for the interruption.

You can experience this too, even if you don’t live near a park. Hell, even if you don’t want to leave the house. There’s a movie, for example, that’ll give you feelings much like this. Sharpen you up. Tune you in. If you have 70 minutes to watch People on Sunday (and of course you do), you will be so enlightened.

People on Sunday is a late (really late) German silent, scripted by Billy Wilder and shot by Fred Zinnemann—which is enough to pique the interest of any classic film fan in the West. These men were very early in their careers, however. What makes the film special is not who made it, but its peculiar conceit. It presumes universal truths, strives to convey them, and in doing so, positions them in a specific time and place loaded with meaning. Not all of this was the producers’ doing. People on Sunday was profound enough to viewers in 1930, but far more to us, today.

The place is Berlin. The year is 1929. It is a Sunday, and four working friends, two men and two women, decide to take a trip to the beach. The women are young and single; the men are young too, but one of them is married. He has left his wife at home.

Thousands of stories have been crafted from such combinations. And there is a good story here: about jealousy and frustration; female possessiveness; male immaturity. But People on Sunday can never be distilled down to just that, because of its set of opening title cards, which read:

People on Sunday: A Film Without Actors. These five people had never appeared in front of a camera before. Today they’re all back at their own jobs.

One could argue that anyone who is aware of being filmed becomes an actor, though not necessarily a good one. Let’s set that aside. Wolf, the single man, is a wine-seller in the film, and in real life; Erwin, the married man, is a taxi driver. His wife, Annie, who stays home, is a fashion model. The other women, Christl and Brigitte, are a film extra and a sales clerk in a record shop, respectively. These are their real names. They are not actors.

But they are playing roles. People on Sunday is not a documentary; it doesn’t even look like one. It takes us not only through the streets of Berlin, not only on a trip to the beach, but on a date Wolf and Christl had the previous day, and to Erwin’s flat, where he and his languid wife bicker passive-aggressively while fiddling with a bureau door in near slapstick-fashion. The artifice is clear.

Are these five people good actors? I think they’re fine. Erwin, in particular, has a talent for comedy, or at least, a willingness to be mocked (I’m built much like him, and you wouldn’t catch me in a swimsuit that small.) Annie, too, is a memorable presence, and I wished her part were bigger. But the success of the film has less to do with the talent of these five people than with their actions. Actions which wed, wonderfully, the dramatic to the true. And that is to the producer’s credit, much more than the stars’.

Take the moment, early in the film, when Erwin rises from his bed to leave for the beach. His wife does not stir. They’d had a fight the night before, fuelled equally by his selfishness and her listlessness, and they seem sick of each other. Maybe she’s only pretending to be asleep. Erwin dresses and gets ready to leave. He writes her a note, letting her know where she can meet him. He takes out his pack of cigarettes and, glancing at his dozing wife, pops out three smokes, leaving them on the table. That’s her share. To me this was so male: the adherence to roles and duties, even when the purpose of the relationship has being lost.

The quartet heads to the beach. Brigitte, the shy one, attracts Wolf’s attention, making Chantl jealous. Wolf teases them both. Erwin plays the jester, or perhaps, just plays himself. He seemed indifferent to the power games played by the other three, but I wasn’t convinced. ‘I know someone very much like Erwin,’ I thought, ‘and deep down, he’s troubled.’

People on Sunday can be so… refreshing. The youths have problems, but not earth-shattering ones. We’re not expected to care about them more than we do. And if the four have the potential to grow tedious, we’ll never know, because the film repeatedly cuts away from their little excursion to observe other people, at work and at play, surrounding them.

These cutaways are the heart of the film. We see shopkeepers selling things. We see fat old women in bathing suits tending to nude children. We see labourmen in the streets: hosing, raking, fixing cars. These moments are brief. And I can’t stress to you enough how much better they are for being so. Nothing is more pretentious that an artiste trying to glorify the daily grind. In People on Sunday, work is work. That’s why people like the weekend. 

I watched the film only last night, but I can already tell you which scene will stay with me longest. (It’s often this way with silents—you witness a scene so remarkable that it rests, like a veneer, over your life for days afterward. These are the keepers.) It is a vignette, unrelated to anything else in the film, about a statue and a man.

The statue is an enormous one, of a king, in all his pomp and excess. It is part of a monument that includes eagles and lions. It also has a place to sit. And so, an utterly average older gentleman, wearing a suit, carrying an umbrella, decides to rest there a moment. The camera cuts from the man to the statue: from the typical to the mythic and mighty. The man observes the statue, which is there to be observed, of course; he removes his hat in deference. Then he slaps his hand on the head of an eagle and gets comfortable. Whoever the real king may have been, this here’s a piece of stone, valuable for what the least of its subjects might need of it.

We’re all that man, at least some of the time. Like, when we take a moment to sit down, or at least slow down, and take in a grand thing. The men behind People on Sunday did that, and so we have the grand thing that they made. And then, watching what they made, we recall that, only a few years later, Germany was under the Third Reich. And everything changes.

One last thing. I watched People on Sunday with a companion, and when it was over, she remarked that it would make the perfect “gateway silent” for those who have never seen one. As a non-fan, she would know. And she’s right. If you’re looking to make a silent film convert, People on Sunday is the movie to show them.

Where to find People on Sunday:
People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) is available on DVD—part of the Criterion Collection.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! I have to admit, I probably would've passed this one over, but not now. :)