The Weimar Era was a unique period in Germany. Life was filled with possibilities, creative and artistic endeavors, and more than anything, pleasure and leisure-seeking. At times, it’s difficult to gauge the nuance of daily life, especially in such a distant past. But the silent film, People on Sunday (1930) offers a vision of one day in Berlin. Life which would’ve been forgotten is framed and preserved.
Directed by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, People on Sunday is a combination of documentary and loose fiction. Siodmak and Ulmer hired five people with no acting experience to enact a straightforward plot. In the midst of a bustling and busy city, a young man meets a young woman by chance. They’re attracted to each other, and agree to spend a picnic at a nearby lake, an indication that the city dwellers need a break from the grittiness of the city.
They agree to meet at 10 a.m. on Sunday at a designated place. However, it turns out that the girl brings a shy female friend with her (who turns out not as bashful as we thought), and the young man brings a friend of his own, who’s left a woman he lives with (presumably his lover) at their dingy apartment. In his defense, the woman is a listless blob, who spends most of her days filing her nails and sleeping.
For the most part, their outing is innocent but Siodmak and Ulmer create an atmosphere of uncertainty. Hyper-focusing on these four people, who can’t be blamed for being young and for wanting a life of fleeting irresponsibility, Siodmak and Ulmer juxtapose this with large crowds of people. They’re swimming, laughing, and eating. A particularly funny and tender moments come from photographic portraits on the beach. Siodmak and Ulmer make use of face close-ups, while they’re being freeze-framed. This is astounding to see in a silent movie; a creative technique that’s become a regular occasion for aesthetically significant moments seen later in cinema.
One wonders what happened to the people. Much like W.G. Sebald would do decades later in his literature, here too we have an immemorial glimpse that’s both ancient and forever present. It’s impossible not to think of the horrific events in Germany that would follow the end of the Weimar period, and beginning of National Socialism. What happened to those careless and happy faces?
The film’s tinged with a sense of foreboding and uncertainty. When one-half of the couple moves to a more private area of the woods, one isn’t sure what will happen. The young woman is chased by the young man, but is this just a game? Her look, at once reveling in the pleasure of the chase and in fear creates anxiety for the viewer too. Is he going to attack her? Rape her? Does she want to be with him? Siodmak and Ulmer make creative use of the erotic and sexual encounter between the pair by panning the camera in another direction. Yet, there’s something disposable about the entire moment. As we move away from the couple, the camera focuses on the beautiful trees only to be accosted by a pile of trash—old metal cans in various states of decomposition. Is this what the union we’re not privy to is meant to be?
There’s a generational tension in the film as well but it’s only implied. On one hand, our young people may be unfettered but they have no connection to any larger family. They’re hardly interested in tradition. They’re aimless yet they’re trying to find some significance in life. But are their actions enough? They have no connection to the past. It’s implied they want to be released from it but what does that mean in the bigger historical and existential picture?
On the other hand, we catch a glimpse of an old man, admiring the classical statues that link him to some, presumably, German history. But even his experience is detached. His contemplation is affected, and he’s trying too hard to reflect on something which he can’t grasp. He wants culture but culture is beyond his comprehension. Does this make the young couples more authentic despite the fact that they are aimless?
No matter how transient their lives are appearing before our eyes, it’s clear there’s a sense of yearning for something higher than themselves. They may not be connected to anything solid family or country), but their passions and desires transcend all of that. Somehow, they emerge as human beings.