A brief, tranquil morning reading the paper, a quick dalliance with a lover, a peaceful walk through the city, a fun game of catch, a sudden flirtatious glance, or perhaps even a lazy afternoon spread out on a beach. Often we take these trivial occurrences for granted, letting them slip from our minds and memories. Sometimes though, it's in these deceptively simple moments -- the ones we think are unimportant or disposable, the ones seeped in our routines and everyday lifestyles -- that real truth lies. 'People on Sunday,' a 1930 silent film set in Weimar-era Berlin, is a movie about such moments. Shot by a dream-team of young German filmmakers including Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Billy Wilder, along with nonprofessional actors and an improvisational, quasi-documentary style of loose narrative structure, the film offers a beautiful window into the past, through an effortless yet still potent rumination on the carefree minutia of weekend life.
The plot is rather basic, essentially following a group of young men and women who embark on a double date of sorts, during a peaceful Sunday break from the stress and responsibilities of work. Each of the characters are essentially slightly fictionalized versions of the actors themselves, and are first introduced to the audience with their names and professions expressed through intertitle. There's Erwin the taxi driver, Brigitte the record seller, Christl the film extra, Wolfgang the wine salesman, and Annie the model. All of their names and job descriptions match up to the performers' real life identities, and this level of verisimilitude extends deeply throughout every aspect of the proceedings.
Somewhat experimental in nature, the film resists classic dramatic structure, and instead places emphasis on simple actions and events. We watch as our quartet of characters (poor Annie fails to wake up in time for the movie's main, frolicking outing) relax by a lake, read newspapers, play cards, listen to records, enjoy a paddleboat ride, take a quiet stroll, have a picnic, and engage in various other ordinary activities. Through their interactions with one another there are occasional bursts of flirtation, jealousy, joy, anger, and playfulness which do indeed weave an emotional narrative of sorts, but for the most part, the movie defies the usual conventions of plot in favor of a more day-in-the-life approach. Frequent montages of actual documentary footage are inter-cut into the narrative, showing the city bustling with life and activity, with anonymous citizens walking in parks, crossing streets, washing cars, playing sports, swimming, and in one particularly wonderful sequence, having their pictures taken. This combination of meandering plot and inconsequential footage may sound uninteresting or perhaps even boring, but the artistry behind it all, the smooth command of flowing cuts, the effortless compositions, and natural, yet charming performances, all create an absolutely sumptuous bouquet of lovely images that wash over the viewer with irresistible appeal.
One shot in particular really stands out. While relaxing by a lake, Wolfgang lies comfortably across the ground with Brigitte wrapped around one arm and Christl across the other. In one of the film's few instances of actual dramatic plotting, throughout the date the shameless Lothario has been vying for both ladies' affections at the same time, hoping that at least one will eventually give in to his efforts. While he gets rather grabby with a surprisingly receptive Brigitte on one arm, we cut to a close-up of a completely oblivious Christl, as she sweetly nestles her face upon Wolfgang's other hand. The shot (actually used for the cover of this release) is one of those rare, indelible cinematic images, a perfect snapshot of emotion, encapsulating a brief, momentary instance of uncomplicated happiness, beautifully expressed and expanded upon in visual form, forever frozen in time. And yet, despite its breathtakingly simple revelation of truth, in its own way, the image is also a lie, for we the audience know, that just a few inches away, Wolfgang is actually callously conveying his affections for another. The shot and sequence as a whole are a great example of the film's mixture of light, honest romanticism, with occasionally harsh, bittersweet undertones.
In the included supplements, film restoration expert Martin Koerber briefly asserts his belief that the movie's lighthearted atmosphere and style are really just a facade, masking a much more cynical and tragic core espousing the eternal divide between men and women. While I can see where Koerber is coming from with this assessment, and he certainly isn't wrong in his observation of a cynical undercurrent, I strongly reject this overly pessimistic interpretation. Though some of the male characters' behavior can be insensitive or even cruel, to me, the film makes no calculated attempts at misanthropic musings or contemptuous insights. Instead, quite to the contrary, it really is just a basic, straightforward peek into a time, a place, a culture, and a people, with a realistic and sincere portrayal of their mundane, playful, dreamy, romantic, petty, and sometimes even roguish personalities and daily lives.
'People on Sunday' is a frank examination of the fleeting, carefree moments of respite, that bookend the hard and monotonous shuffle of work that gets lodged in between all of our wistfully, breezy Sundays. The wonders, joys, and frustrations of everyday existence occur whether we choose to highlight them, savor them, remember them, or even accidentally sleep through them, and by capturing them on film, the filmmakers have crafted a light, yet multifaceted testament to simply being. 'People on Sunday' is filmmaking at its most pure and unfiltered, an influential precursor to the innovations of Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave. It's a celebration of the beautiful simplicity of life through images. It's a distant memory of a bygone era, perfectly crystallized in a treasure of a film.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'People on Sunday' in their standard clear case with spine number 569. The BD-50 region A disc comes packaged with a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Noah Isenberg and reprints written by screenwriters Billy Wilder and director Robert Siodmak. While some painstaking restoration has been made, the opening of the movie includes a title card explaining that there are still about 200 meters of film missing from the picture's original form, leaving about eight minutes of primarily documentary footage absent.
The movie is provided with a black and white 1080i/AVC transfer in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I'm not sure why Criterion has decided to forgo a progressive presentation (it may have something to do with the movie's irregular frame rate of 22 fps), but the image is thankfully free of any intrusive combing or similar artifacts usually attributed to interlaced video. While it definitely shows its age, 'People on Sunday' still looks quite spectacular on Blu-ray.
Considering the film is over eighty years old and is assembled from various incomplete sources, damage really isn't all that bad. With that said, there are still numerous instances of dirt, scratches, vertical lines, pulsing, and other similar issues which are common with movies of this era, but they are never distracting or excessive. A moderate to heavy, natural level of grain is present throughout. Detail can often be remarkable, giving these decades' old images a sometimes razor sharp level of depth and texture. Though they can be a bit elevated, black levels are mostly deep and inky. Contrast is also strong but may suffer from some slight boosting.
Factoring in its age and troubled history, 'People on Sunday' looks absolutely beautiful on Blu-ray. Criterion and the EYE Film Institute Netherlands have done a great job of restoring this gem of a film.
Two audio options are included for this silent film. There is a silent-era-style arrangement by the Mont Alto Orchestra and a modern composition by Elena Kats-Chernin as performed by the Czech Film Orchestra. Both mixes are presented in uncompressed 2.0 PCM sound. German intertitles are presented throughout with optional English subtitles.
The disc defaults to the silent-era track and that is what I primarily listened to, though I did sample the modern track as well. From a technical perspective, both sound wonderful, with great depth and fidelity. There is some nice separation across the two channels with clearly distinct musical elements throughout the soundstage. Dynamic range is fairly good, providing a full gamut of frequencies for the scores.
As far as which track is better suited for the film, I myself preferred the silent-era score which has a more simplistic, melodic tone. The modern era track is a bit more overpowering and even features vocals in certain sections which I found distracting.
Despite my own personal leaning, you really can't go wrong with either track, and both deliver a great aural experience for this wonderful movie.
Though not packed with material, the two supplements that Criterion has provided are certainly worthy of your time. Both special features are presented in 1080i with German Dolby Digital mono tracks and English subtitles.
'People on Sunday' is a beautiful look at a simple weekend outing by a couple of carefree youths, that brilliantly and effortlessly illuminates both the joys and bitterness of everyday life, without any of the overbearing artificiality of conventional dramatic structure. The video and audio presentations are both wonderful, and while a little light, the included supplements are interesting. Essentially, this is silent cinema at its best and comes highly recommended.