And Thus You Spend Your Fleeting Days

People on Sunday (1930)

Christl Ehlers in People on Sunday | Criterion

In Éric Rohmer’s recently restored L’Ami de Mon Amie from 1987, young civil servant Blanche spends a weekend afternoon swimming with her best friend’s man. Fabien, left behind when girlfriend Léa goes on holiday, bumps into and increasingly gravitates toward Blanche. He’s undeterred by her timidity, encouraged by her shared appreciation for all the outdoor leisure his Léa detests. Together they windsurf the man-made lakes of Cergy-Pontoise; unselfconscious, they chase each other from the crowded waterpark up to a tranquil height, where Blanche gazes at the sun flaring prettily through the canopy and bursts into tears.

She’s happy—moved by the concert of natural beauty, by her unexpected centrality within it—and also instantly, helplessly sad, because a good day is ending, and so the weekend, and the romantic alternate dimension unsealed by Léa’s absence. In protest or desolation, Blanche collapses on the dappled ground and Fabien follows. He moves an inquiring hand under the strap of her swimsuit, over her sternum, an unstudied gesture of intimacy and assurance that hovers well after the movie ends. 

Set in summer amid les vacances, L’Ami nails the paradoxical essence of such afternoons, at turns teeming and languid. It’s a quality best expressed by montage, where whole journeys, conversations, activities, and meals are condensed as if by memory; where there’s a sense of time as abundant but precious, a tidy container for a surplus of longing. A year earlier, Rohmer’s Le Rayon Vert—named for the rare optical event of a green flash visible at, again, sunset—conducts a more farcical study of a young woman’s misadventurous search for summer love. But the template originates a bit further afield: Berlin, summer, 1929. A snapshot of everyday life as envisaged by a collective of subsequent émigrés, each bound for Hollywood but for now sharing tables at the Romanisches Café: directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, photographers Eugen Schüfftan and Fred Zinnemann, and writers Kurt (later Curt) Siodmak and Billie (later Billy) Wilder.

Menschen am Sonntag—People on Sunday—is the uniquely hybrid product of hybrid effort. According to the opening titles, it’s a film without actors: a kind of self-aware experiment, creative within the pragmatic constraints of independent production. But by pronouncing its performers are “today”—by the time of exhibition—“all back at their own jobs,” People asserts its veracity. In the end, we get a little city symphony and a little dramatic entanglement; a hyper, Vertovian attentiveness to urban rhythms and a fondness for long-held low angle close-ups, the magnifications of which all but eclipse the frame, restoring our focus to reverent contemplations of the face. 

The film’s credits attribute direction to Robert, 28, and Edgar, 24; script to Curt and Billy, 26 and 23; and camerawork to Metropolis cinematographer Eugen—the oldest at 36—with assistance from 22-year-old Fred. In their hands, People was made cheap and, if reports are to be believed, loose; after the movie premiered to critical and popular enthusiasm at UFA’s Theater Kurfürstendamm in February, 1930, interviews with those involved produced conflicting impressions of said involvement. Wilder, Ulmer, and Curt Siodmak each had their own version of who really stuck around to oversee shooting, and whether the script was merely an outline or grounds for improvisation—accounts related in greater detail by Noah Isenberg, who credits the very vagueness of the film’s “vague origins” with contributing to its enduring appeal. For a film concerned with spontaneity and play to emerge extemporaneously, or at least without undue contrivance, makes a charismatic kind of sense. As Isenberg observes, it’s this collision of production history and film aesthetic that’s encouraged historians to celebrate People for what it appears to prophesy: the authenticity and immediacy of Italian neorealism and, later, the French New Wave.

It may be that with its real locations, non-professional performers, and documentary-style cinematography of the city surrounds, People presages aspects of both movements, but it’s also a film about presaging. Made by artists on the cusp of migration to Hollywood, in the shallow breath between economic crisis and fascist uprising, about the day-long deferment of yet another work week, People on Sunday is the deceptively cheery urtext of the so-called “Sunday scaries”—that anticipatory form of anxiety whose organic recurrence was theorized with iconic clarity by TV’s Angela Chase in 1994: “There’s something about Sunday night that really makes you want to kill yourself.”

Affectively, People never goes so far, never offers an instant of grief analogous to Rohmer’s Blanche crying in the woods. But seen from the unsteady present of September, a point from which summer’s end is finally undeniable but the fact of it having been a summer at all remains ambiguous; poised before a national election at once decisive and insufficient; with the pleasures of picking through crowds and kissing strangers still foreclosed and the conditions of work draining “Monday” and “weekend” of any surviving power to distinguish industry from repose, People’s portrayal of five young Berlin residents over two summer days in 1929 is arguably more distressing for its effervescence. They don’t know to mourn a good day any more than we did.

The movie opens on the streets in a flurry of motion, cinematographic as well as on-screen, with mobile shots of vehicles, motorcycles, streetcars; vectors of pedestrians crossing from opposing directions; and signs for the U-Bahn evoking unseen speeds below. For an astonishingly molecular account of this sequence, there’s scholar Lutz Koepnick’s essay on the film, which anatomizes its initial breakdown from images of anonymous city flow to the entrances of two main characters: a man and a woman, whose appearances unfold in and signify a specifically metropolitan uncertainty: “Did the camera simply show them because they were random members of the crowd—that is, fleeting sights that briefly command the urban dweller’s field of vision before disappearing into oblivion again?”

Our strangers are handsome traveling wine salesman Wolfgang von Waltershausen and chic film extra Christl Ehlers. Perched expectantly on a corner, Christl is plainly waiting for someone and he either is him or wants to be. But they don’t know each other—nor oppose getting acquainted, so they converge, take to a café, chat, flirt. Like the intersecting lines of traffic, their collision is telegraphed but unplanned; the decision to meet again tomorrow, almost automatic.

With their appointment set, our attention lights elsewhere. A ferris wheel. Children playing in a sandy trench, a man swabbing the panes of a streetlamp, boats skimming the river. Some views are vague and remote; others, starkly graphic. Among a series of cleaners wiping windshields and shoveling shit, the camera selects a few more principals from Berlin’s vast ensemble: Electrola shopgirl Brigitte Borchert, and driver Erwin Splettstößer, who’ll soon spend Saturday night in the one-room apartment he appears to share with his girlfriend, Annie Schreyer. It’s notable that while the film introduces Brigitte and Erwin via their day jobs—supervising the arrangement of her window display and working on the undercarriage of his cab—the occupation of modelling coincides with a comparatively inert vision of Annie, enrobed, filing her nails in bed.

Unlike People’s perambulatory opening, where “the eye of the camera gives the impression of scoping the city’s visual field in search of something worth our attention,” the sensibility indoors becomes direct to the point of stagey. After dinner, Erwin initiates a bizarre battle of the sexes, defiling a postcard of actor Willy Fritsch with a smear of shaving cream; Annie dismembers Greta Garbo in retaliation. Back and forth, the couple destroy images of each other’s favorite actors from a shrine-like installation of icons on the wall. We’re not long in the apartment, but aspects of this slapstick bit will resurface throughout the film like shards of a dream: photographic reproduction, mass entertainment, faces, veneration, jealousy.

Annie’s still asleep on Sunday morning when Erwin leaves for the train to Nikolassee. He meets Wolfgang and Christl, who’s brought her friend Brigitte, gramophone in tow. The journey unfolds in a sequence of dissolves, a composite itinerary of streetcars, landmarks, billboards, and facades giving way to gradually densifying greenery.

At the lake they do lake things: strip, swim. The attention paid by People’s camera is distractible but not non sequitur; often, one image elicits a fleeting series on the subject—as when Erwin, browsing postcards, considers an illustration of a zaftig woman in a wet swimsuit, prompting a cut to nearby bathers in correspondingly clinging fabric. There’s a profound, albeit playful, interest in other people: in the uncanny variations of bodies, for which the beach is a kind of buffet. We’re liable to wander off, but likewise bound to return. To move between immersion and diversion, lake and shore, missing nothing along the way.

The dynamic that presides between these “couples” is clear: Christl wants Wolfgang who wants Brigitte (who wants him back), and everyone’s microscopically aware of each other—even Erwin, who seems to prefer comedy to drama, at one point flipping frankfurters like a campsite Benihana. We catch Brigitte chuckling when Christl chokes on a too-hot sausage; the film cuts to strange faces grotesque with laughter, revealed as belonging to a group of well-dressed young men spanking one another in succession. The precise nature of…whatever this is isn’t as knowable as what it looks like (a survey of facial expressions—arched eyebrows and crossed eyes) and what it evokes (the violent but harmless release of sexual tension; it’s hard not to think of what biographer Maurice Zolotow calls “the Wilder touch—a grossness, a cynicism, a bawdiness”). 

In fact, when Zolotow cites the Wilder touch, he’s recounting a scene from People on Sunday—the very one to which Rohmer’s L’Ami pays homage. Wolfgang and Brigitte break away from the others to be alone. Like Fabien and Blanche, they end up in a clearing, where the camera tilts down from Wolfgang’s shoulder to the top of Brigitte’s tousled head. There’s no title card to explicate whatever he says next, as if the film itself knows it’s the kind of incidental line you might forget, remembering instead the way he spreads his hand in her hair, or how they kiss through a tangle of fingers and forearms as if forcing our vision through a keyhole.

When they find the ground, the camera abruptly shifts left, up, and away, so what we see is just: trees. A patient pan across undulating branches, an interval of sheer implication. 

Later in his essay, Koepnick describes the film’s timely misgivings about modern society’s instrumentalization of mass culture—an impulse People shares with much of the American film noir its creators would go on to produce. Here, the film’s critical posture is all the more compelling for its subtlety; unlike noir films, whose alienated characters and overall darkness could be said to underline their iconoclasm, People on Sunday “does not relish apocalyptic visions.” Instead, moments like Erwin and Annie’s film-star fight or a lengthy sequence involving portrait photography at the lake let the film pose open questions about the meaning of mechanical reproduction—questions that benefit from being integrated within the fabric of our characters’ daily lives, unpressured by narrative closure.

But I suppose that subtlety depends on what counts as an apocalyptic vision. If the “Mentally, I’m here” memes are any indication, the visual vocabulary of catastrophe is nothing if not supple: as dissociative as images depicting a kind of aspirational astral projection—mentally, I’m at the Cullens’ baseball game—or as frank as K.C. Green’s ubiquitous dog in a house on fire, or as enigmatic as a lone cow looking at the sea.

Death pervades a contemporary viewing of People on Sunday. If not as a mushroom cloud, then in forms no less miasmic: a body of soldiers seen twice among the people, and the subsequent unease of lockstep in a crowd.

A café patio flooded with late light: the dream of safe places to be in public, to be with others.

Erwin and Wolfgang at the rear of a streetcar together after the girls have split for home, watching the road grow behind them, their backs to what’s ahead.

And for those at risk of losing grip on what ordinary life once looked like: commuters carrying briefcases. Students in knee socks milling into school. A photo kiosk. A beer truck. A splashy intertitle to acknowledge millions of people holding on for next Sunday, whenever that is.