Saturday, 26 August 2017

Get fresh at the weekend... People on Sunday (1929), with Stephen Horne, BFI

"And then on is back to work... back to the everyday... back to the daily grind... Four... million... wait for... the next Sunday…”

This is one I’ve been saving for the big screen with live accompaniment and it was well worth the wait for a film that pulls you into the centre of city intimacies like few others: people and places you experience more than simply "watch".

There was also the bonus of an expert introduction from Erica Carter of Kings College London and the German Screen Studies Network. Erica placed Menschen am Sonntag in the context of its time as well as the artistic objectives of a production team that went onto have such an impact in Hollywood: directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, cinematographers Eugen Schüfftan (Die Nibelungen, Metropolis... Napoleon!!) and Fred Zinnemann, who later gained an Oscar for his work on From Here to Eternity then there was someone called Billie - later Billy - Wilder?

Wolf waits...
The film is haunted not only by our knowledge of exactly why these men ended up in Hollywood but also by its capturing of the casual everyday of a sunny Sunday Berlin just three years before the Nazi Party led its first administration in January 1933. The brutal dash of fascism seems a world away from the carefree style of the film and the citizens it captures whiling away their free time in parks, lakes and looking out on streets that would be utterly transformed within 16 years.

Pulling off those goggles of foresight though, what we see is a stunning film that captures the moments of what we all would recognise as the best of days and which features no actual actors and yet is so well directed and crisply edited you would hardly notice.

Erwin settles in for dinner
The five stars of the film play versions of themselves and that is perhaps why their reactions are so convincingly natural. Whether dictated by budget constraints or by the film-makers’ desire to create a more realistic cinema than the intense, formalised works of UFA, the “actors” all do really well. Thinking of Ken Loach and others’ work with non-professionals, maybe we find it easier to display non-verbal play-acting, the voice and diction often betrays us but we’re so used to controlling our “look”.

The story itself is also far from complicated and merely a device to hang the set-pieces of actuality and these moments reinforce the relationships being acted out.

Wolfgang von Waltershausen and Christl Ehlers
A travelling salesman called Wolfgang (Wolfgang von Waltershausen) meets a pretty film extra called Christl (Christl Ehlers) and the two agree to spend Sunday together. Wolfgang invites his taxi-driver pal, Erwin (Erwin Splettstosser) who lives with his model wife Annie (Annie Schreyer). The couple of movie-obsessed and their walls are plastered with post cards of Greta Garbo and others stars – Harold Lloyd and I think I spotted Rennee Adore? It’s a nice touch – a film without stars who follow the stars the film couldn’t afford.

Annie is too much in need of a lie-in and so Erwin sets off alone only to find that Christl has brought along a blonde pal, Brigitte (Brigitte Borchert) who works as a salesgirl in gramophone shop… Mark my words, one day these things will be incredibly popular with teenagers in 2017.

Brigitte revs things up
The four set off as the streets around them fill with Sunday swirl… and that’s your set up, what follows is the most gentle of days out, featuring sunbathing, swimming, peddle boats and wandering eyes… oh yes and a ripped shirt sleeve.

The camera follows the players wherever they go, out onto the water and in the midst of their interactions. At one point there’s a close-up of Christl as she snoozes on Wolgang’s hand and then it pulls back slightly and moves over his naked chest to view Brigitte all together more intimately cradled in his other arm: it’s a clever moment that illustrates this love triangle in all its febrile complexity; no words just faces and arms. As the four hit the water for the first time the camera is almost in there with them as Christl and Wolfgang race and fail to hit it off and Erwin splashes like a (very) oversized child in the 1929 version of too-small speedos.

Annie watches the stars...
The narrative is so well-observed and engaging not just as we see Wolfgang and Brigitte get closer but simply as we watch four people experiencing their day. That’s ultimately why the film holds such fascination; it’s infused with wellbeing and the youthful experience of endless sunny Sundays. At the end their lives are so full of rich possibility that you’re not sure whether they’ll meet again… after all, the football is on next Sunday.

Stephen Horne accompanied just on piano this time and plunged into some deeply-resonant tones of his own. Given the way the film was conceived and performed it just has to be seen with live improvised playing and Stephen captured the film’s freshness along with the fragile, sometimes only partially-developed emotions of the players. At times like these you wishe that the BFI should allow for an encore… perhaps of the mysterious woodland chase sequence in which Wolfgang follows blonde not brunette and there’s that tell-tale tear of the shirt?

That's The Look...
The film has been restored by the BFI and others to something like 90% of its original length (91.3% to be precise, based on footage!) and is available on crisp Criterion Blu-ray… It's one of the most visually compelling of all silent films and having now finally watched my copy after the screening I might just watch it again!

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