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People on Sunday (a.k.a. Menschen am Sonntag)

(1930) *** Unrated
73 min. Janus Films. Director: Edgar G. Ulmer. Cast: Erwin Splettstosser, Wolfgang Von Waltershausen, Brigitte Borchert, Christl Ehlers, Annie Schreyer.

/content/films/4078/1.jpgPartway through the German silent film Menschen am Sonntag (a.k.a. People on Sunday), we notice a conspicuously placed book titled “And Thus You Spend Your Fleeting Days.” It's as good a summation as any for the film, a snapshot of Weimar-era Berlin that finds future filmmaking greats wryly holding a mirror up to the lives of others. Billed as Filmstudio 1929's "first experiment...A Film Without Actors," People on Sunday boasts a filmmaking team that included credited directors Robert Siodmak (The Killers) and Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour), credited screenwriter Billy Wilder (then Billie Wilder, later the director of Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard, among others), and cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan (Oscar winner for The Hustler), and camera assistant Fred Zinneman (later the director of High Noon).

Blending documentary footage and the fictional story of five people, the picture portrays, for the most part, one lazy Sunday in and around Berlin. The nonprofessional actors play versions of themselves: taxi driver Erwin Splettstösser, wine seller Wolfgang von Waltershausen, film extra Christl Ehlers, record seller Brigitte Borchert, and model Annie Schreyer. Wilder's scenario arranges them into a comical double date, with one of the five cleverly removed like a musical chair (groggily refusing to wake for the film's lakeside outing). The film's opening movement takes in, documentary-style, Saturday's life in the city, including the chance meeting and chat-up between a young man and a young woman; subsequently, the picture becomes a langorous study of leisure during the double date, and an epilogue establishes that Monday must inevitably come, sending people reluctantly back into their routines.

For its time, the picture was revolutionary, made outside of Germany's studio system and in experimental, on-the-fly fashion. It's a testament to the talent involved that the resulting picture won critical and commercial success for its inventiveness and wit. Its thematic aims are humble, but in addition to serving up a slice of life, the filmmakers cast a withering gaze on the roguish sexual attitudes of men, depicted as more interested in sexual predation than the development of a relationship. In some ways, the film is as much about the medium as the message, with its stylish technique drawing attention to itself as a deck of calling cards for the filmmakers. In particular, the film employs ahead-of-its-time editing techniques: a freeze-frame photograph montage set a template that became all the rage in movies made five decades later (meanwhile a quick-cut sequence involving park statuary quotes Eisenstein). Though People on Sunday regards people lazing about, its legacy is that of filmmakers proving their industriousness.

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Aspect ratios: 1.33:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: LPCM 2.0

Street date: 6/28/2011

Distributor: Criterion Collection

Criterion's Blu-ray edition of People on Sunday presents the film in 1080i hi-def. The product of a fine restoration, this transfer is quite handsome and as clean as can be expected for its age. Though I didn't notice them during playback, instances of combing have been noted in the image, and the picture does have noticeable flicker: neither of these issues are concerning, and perhaps neither is avoidable. The film comes with two soundtrack options, both in linear PCM 2.0: the (preferred) default selection offers up a terrific score compiled and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, while the second track features a score composed by Elena Kats-Chernin and performed by the Czech Film Orchestra.

The 2000 doc “Weekend Am Wannsee” (31:14, HD) does a fine job of putting the film and its restoration into context with three interview subjects: film restorer Martin Koerber, star Brigitte Borchert, and writer Curt Siodmak.

“Ins Blaue Hinein” (35:30, HD) is a 1931 short film directed by People on Sunday cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan.

The package includes a thirty-page booklet with chapter listing, credits, film stills, tech specs, an essay by film scholar Noah Isenberg, and accounts, by Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak, of the film's making.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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