Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: PEOPLE ON SUNDAY

Joshua Brunsting

by: Joshua Brunsting
June 28th, 2011

Cinema can be much more than just entertainment, that goes without saying. Be it an inspiring or enlightening piece of documentary filmmaking, or heartbreaking period drama, film has the chance to not only force emotion out of a person, but in the case of the German film PEOPLE ON SUNDAY, it can be a time capsule, showing the world prior to one of the biggest events in the history of man.

Seemingly released a day before the Great Depression hit Germany, PEOPLE ON SUNDAY is a lively, free-spirit-like piece of silent filmmaking, that plays now as a preface to not only the economic collapse of its homeland, but also to the rise of the Nazi Party. A shockingly vibrant piece of filmmaking, PEOPLE ON SUNDAY is relatively low on plot. With names like Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer (both co-directors on the film) and co-writers Billy Wilder and Fred Zinneman, SUNDAY follows the story of a group of urbanites who head out to the beach one weekend, and plays like a love letter to the Weimar Republic-era Germany. Set in Berlin, the film is one of the most visually inspired pieces of silent cinema, and is easily one of the era’s most unsung masterpieces.

PEOPLE ON SUNDAY is a weirdly poetic beast. Pre-Nazi Germany, this film would have played as nothing more than a blend of documentary style and a fiction-based narrative, but now, looking from my seat here in 2011, the film is eerily melancholic. Following a group of non-actors over the span of a day, the film is so cartoonishly hopeful, simply positing that we all live to reach our Sundays, but now, things have changed.

Featuring gorgeous cinematography from Eugen Schufftan, the film paints each frame with arresting pre-Nazi Berlin locales, and gives the viewer a hauntingly moving glimpse into what Germany was, and just how striking the area truly was, prior to the war. Toss in this film’s inherently upbeat story and score (more on that in a minute), and it’s a show that is both life-affirming and heavy on the revisionist melancholy.

Performance-wise, this film may not ask much of its non-actors, but they still give fantastic performances. Each actor truly held down the jobs that they had been given during this film, and even worked those jobs in the days leading up to the shooting of this film, making this a really intriguing piece of avant garde, verite-style filmmaking. Erwin Splettstosser is great here as the “taxi driver,” and is paired up with Brigitte Borchert, Wolfgang vojn Waltershausen, Christi Ehlers, and Annie Schreyer, each and every one of them giving top-notch performances. This isn’t a performance-heavy film, but when its not relying on its gorgeous filmmaking, the shoulders that this film rests on are more than capable.

And talk about that talent. With a script co-written by Billy Wilder, the film may not be heavy on narrative, but there are a lot of really great touches here. I love the film’s final coda, even if it hits the film’s themes directly on the head, but clocking in at 73 minutes, this film is absolutely impossible to turn off. Included on this Blu-ray release from Criterion are two scores, both of which are moving and evocative of the film’s style and mood. One comes thanks to the Mont Alto Orchestra, and plays as the primary one and is a much more silent film-styled piece of music, playing really well with the film’s style. The best, however, comes thanks to the Czech Film Orchestra and Elena Kats-Chernin, and is much more modern, and keeps with the film’s upbeat style, but just gives it a modern touch.

As far as a release goes, this is easily one of Criterion’s best in quite some time.

Including the two scores, the release comes with a thirty-six-minute short entitled INS BLAUE HINEIN (INTO THE BLUE), a short that is bizarrely similar to PEOPLE ON SUNDAY. The film shares most stylistically with the primary film here, and comes to us thanks to PEOPLE’s cinematographer, Schufftan. It has a strong sense of cinema-verite style, and gives a wonderful sense of context to the film it plays a supplement to (despite having some slightly dreadful subtitles). Toss in a thirty-eight-minute long making-of documentary, and you have a great sense of context with regards to one of the silent film era’s most underrated classics.

Overall, PEOPLE ON SUNDAY is not only a gem of a film, but it’s also a gem of a historical reference. Released just three years prior to the rise of Nazi Germany, PEOPLE ON SUNDAY is a hopeful and vibrantly alive piece of avant-garde filmmaking that features some wonderful talent and a moving narrative. A brisk watch, this film is one of silent cinema’s most accessible members, and also one of its most must see. Inspiring many filmmakers in its wake, this may not be one that you are familiar with, but this is one that you need to be.

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