TWO BERLIN MOVIES FROM THE 1920’S

January 3, 2009 at 1:42 am | Posted in Art, Film, Germany, History, Literary | Leave a comment

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TWO BERLIN MOVIES FROM THE TWENTIES

People on Sunday

BFI DVD cover for “People on Sunday” (first image)

Directed by Robert Siodmak Produced by Filmstudio Written by Billy Wilder
Robert Siodmak

People on Sunday (German: Menschen am Sonntag) is a 1929 German silent movie, directed by Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann from a screenplay by Billy Wilder. It follows the lives of a group of residents of Berlin on a summer’s day during the interwar period. It is a pivotal film not only in the development of German cinema but also of Hollywood[1]. In addition to the Siodmak brothers and Wilder, the film features the talents of Edgar G. Ulmer (producer), Fred Zinnemann (cinematography) and Eugen Schüfftan, who had developed the Schüfftan process for Metropolis two years previously.

The movie is subtitled “a film without actors” and was filmed over a succession of Sundays in the summer of 1929. The actors were amateurs whose day jobs were those that they portrayed in the film—the opening titles inform the audience that these actors have all returned to their normal jobs by the time of the film’s release in February, 1930. They were part of a collective of young Berliners who wrote and produced the film themselves, on a shoestring budget.

Menschen am Sonntag is notable not only for its portrayal of daily life in Berlin shortly before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor, but also as an early work by the future Hollywood writer/director Billy Wilder before he moved to the United States to escape from Hitler’s Germany. Wilder’s mother, grandmother, and stepfather all died at the Auschwitz extermination camp.

Synopsis

The film opens at Bahnhof Zoo train station one Saturday morning. Its opening scenes show the bustling traffic of central Berlin.

The action of the movie centres on five central characters, and takes place over a single weekend. At the start of the movie, a handsome young man, Wolfgang (a wine dealer in real life) sees a pretty girl (Christl – a film extra) who seems to be waiting in the street for someone who has not arrived. He takes her for an ice cream, teases her about having been stood up, and invites her to come for a picnic the following day.

In the meantime, Erwin is carrying out his own day job as a taxi driver. While he is fixing the car, his depot receives a phone call from his wife, Annie (a model in the real world), who wants to know if they are going to the cinema that evening. Erwin clearly is not keen to go – he simply comments that Greta Garbo is showing until the following Tuesday. (One of the running themes of the movie is to play down the importance of the cinema in the lives of these young Berliners.) At the end of the day, Erwin returns home to find Annie moping about – she seems to spend most of her time lying on the bed in a fairly threadbare apartment. The couple start to get ready to go to the cinema, but they continually bicker with each other. The first row is over the pictures of movie stars in their bathroom – it is clear that all the actors are there for Annie’s benefit, while the actresses are there for Erwin, because they punish each other by tearing up each other’s photos. Another row is over whether Annie should wear the brim of her hat up or down. (Another recurrent theme of the movie is the self-centred machismo represented by Erwin and Wolfgang.) Wolfgang arrives in the middle of this argument, so Annie never gets to the cinema. Instead, Erwin and Wolfgang drink beer and plan to go to the countryside the following day.

As a result, the following morning finds the two men taking a train to Nikolassee, accompanied by Christl and her friend Brigitte (who both in the movie and in real life is a sales assistant at a record shop). Many Berliners seem to have the same idea – Nikolassee offers a beach, a lake, parkland, and a pine forest where daytrippers can spend a relaxing few hours. We see many such Berliners of all ages enjoying themselves on a Sunday at Nikolassee, including the four young people who are the focus of the film.

As the four friends have a picnic, swim in the lake, and play records on a portable gramophone, Wolfgang flirts with Brigitte, to the annoyance of Christl. At one point, after lying down with his arms round both women, Wolfgang play-chases Brigitte into the forest, where they find a secluded spot and begin to make love. (The camera trails away at this point, to reveal that there is a great deal of rusting debris nearby – presumably the remains of previous such picnics.) Afterwards, the four friends go for a boat-ride, where Erwin and Wolfgang manage to flirt with two girls who are in a rowing boat on the middle of the lake.

As they head back into Berlin, Brigitte suggests to Wolfgang that they meet again the following Sunday. He agrees, but Erwin reminds him afterwards that they had planned instead to go and watch a football match. It is not clear what they will decide to do, in fact – although it is clear that the two young men enjoy their carefree existence, without much regard for the feelings or wishes of the young women around them.

The final scene returns to shots of the streets of Berlin. The closing series of intertitles announces: “And then on Monday…it is back to work… back to the every day… back to the daily grind… Four… million… wait for… the next Sunday. The end.”

Contemporary critics regarded the movie as an accurate and laconic portrayal of the Berlin they knew [2] and saw the closing intertitles as an accurate claim that these characters represent ordinary real life Berliners. However, these closing words have also acquired an ironic poignancy today, since we are aware that it is not a carefree Sunday but the tragedy of Nazism that awaits the inhabitants of Berlin (and the film-makers themselves) in their very near future.

Revivals

In the autumn of 2002, Menschen am Sonntag was presented at one of Berlin’s popular Jewish Culture Days. The Berlin-based Eastern European group Trio Bravo+ was commissioned to produce a new silent movie score for the film, which proved highly successful and was subsequently released as a standalone soundtrack CD[3].

In 2005, the Netherlands Film Institute released an updated DVD of the film, restoring some missing scenes and commissioning a new score from Elena Kats-Cherin. This is the version used by the British Film Institute as the basis for its own DVD entitled People on Sunday, released 25 April 2005[4].

References

  1. Berlin film festival website

  2. CITYGIRLS_s035_060(21.01.)

  3. Trio Bravo+ website}

  4. BFI DVD People on Sunday

BFI DVD cover for “People on Sunday” Directed by Robert Siodmak Produced by Filmstudio Written by Billy Wilder
Robert Siodmak
Curt Siodmak (story) Starring Erwin Splettstößer
Brigitte Borchert
Wolfgang von Waltershausen
Christl Ehlers
Annie Schreyer Cinematography
Eugen Schüfftan
assisted by
Fred Zinnemann Distributed by Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek/Berlin (Germany)
BFI (DVD)

Release date(s) February, 1930

Running time 73 minutes

Country Germany

Language silent movie

Berlin: Die Symphonie der Großstadt

(1927)

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City

A train speeds through the country on its way to Berlin, then gradually slows down as it pulls into the station. It is very early in the morning, about 5:00 AM, and the great city is mostly quiet. But before long there are some signs of activity, and a few early risers are to be seen on the streets. Soon the new day is well underway – it’s just a typical day in Berlin, but a day full of life and energy.

Director:

Walter Ruttmann

Writers:

Karl Freund (writer)
Carl Mayer (writer)
more

Release Date:

13 May 1928 (USA)

Genre:

Documentary

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (German: Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt), a 1927 German silent film directed by Walter Ruttmann, and co-written by Carl Mayer and Karl Freund, is a prominent example of the city symphony genre.[1] A musical score to accompany the film was written by Edmund Meisel. As a “city symphony” film, it portrays the life of a city, mainly through visual impressions in a semi-documentary style, without the narrative content of more mainstream films, though the sequencing of events can imply a kind of “narrative” of the city’s daily life.

Other noted examples of the genre include Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand‘s 1921 film Manhatta, Dziga Vertov‘s 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera, Andre Sauvage’s 1928 film Etudes sur Paris, and the 1929 Dutch film Regen directed by Mannus Franken and Joris Ivens.

This film represented a sort of break from Ruttmann’s earlier “Absolute” films which were abstracts. Some of Vertov’s earlier films have been cited as influential on Ruttmann’s approach to this film, and it seems the filmmakers mutually inspired one another, as there exist many parallels between this film and the later Man with a Movie Camera.

The film displays the filmmaker’s knowledge of Soviet montage theory. Some Socialist political sympathies, or identification with the underclass can be inferred from a few of the edits in the film, though critics have suggested that either Ruttmann avoided a strong position, or else he pursued his aesthetic interests to the extent that they diminished the potential for political content.[2] Ruttmann’s own description of the film suggests that his motives were predominantly aesthetic: “Since I began in the cinema, I had the idea of making something out of life, of creating a symphonic film out of the millions of energies that comprise the life of a big city.”[3]

Five acts

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City is largely an avant-garde film, and does not have a plot in the conventional sense. However, the events of the film are arranged to simulate the passage of a single day (simulated from an assemblage of film shot over the period of one year).[4] Shots and scenes are cut together based on relationships of image, motion, point of view, and thematic content. At times, a sort of commentary can be implied, as in edits that juxtapose workers entering a factory with cattle being beaten and driven into a corral.

The five reel film is divided into five acts, and each act is announced through a title card at the beginning and end. One leitmotiv that is present in all of the acts, which largely connects them, is the theme of the train and streetcar. Much of the motion in the film, and many of the scene transitions, are built around the motion of trains and streetcars.

I Akt: The first act starts the day, beginning with calm waters and a graphic representation of a sunrise. Railroad crossing gates are lowered, a train travels through down the tracks and proceeds into the city, ending with a graphic of the “Berlin” sign approaching. The film then transitions through calm and empty streets, to the gradual process of the city waking up. At first, only objects are seen, such as a bit of paper blowing through an empty street, but soon a few people arise, then more are about, and the activity builds to crowds of workers going to work, pedestrians, busy streetcars, trains etc. A hand manipulates a lever, effectively turning on the city, and factory machinery springs to life. Glass bulbs are produced, sheets of metal are cut, molten steel is poured, smokestacks are seen against the sky, and the first act ends.

II Akt: The second act shows more of the general life of the city, beginning with the opening of gates, shutters, windows, doors, people busy cleaning, fruit carts, children going to school. Mailmen start their day, shops open. Different classes of people are seen, some mounting busses and streetcars, while wealthy men enter chauffeured private cars. The city is bustling with activity. Office workers prepare to start their day, as roll top desks open, people set out their pens, paper, open books, remove the cases from typewriters, and a bank of typists quickly erupt into activity. Keys on keyboards spiral around one another, and a montage of a spinning hypnotist’s wheel, monkeys biting one another, telephone operators, machinery, and dogs fighting is mixed into the general busy work of the office, building quickly to a crescendo… phone receivers hang up. End of the second act.

III Akt: The third act shows more busy street life, and a variety of people of different classes going about their business. There are industrial workers, construction workers, salespeople, shoppers, etc. A fight between two men breaks out briefly, but is quickly stopped by bystanders and a policeman. There are many crowds, a father and bride arriving at a wedding, some flirtation between people on the street, a coffin on a hearse seen through the windows of a streetcar, a diplomat arrives at a ministry, the Reich President is saluted by police, a conservative students’ organization is marching with banners, an angry protestor lectures a crowd, there are a few glimpses of racial minorities, lots of workers, and plenty of chaotic activity. Trains, trains, trains, and several newspapers held up for display, dissolving over one another, bringing us to the end of the third act.

IV Akt: The fourth act starts with a lunch break. 12:00 is shown on a clock, and the spinning wheels of a factory slow to a stop. A variety of workers leave their workplaces. People start to eat and drink, and animals feed. Some poignant transitions intercut a wealthy diner with a lion feeding on meat from a bone, and hungry street kids embracing their mother clothed in rags sitting out on the steps. Many types of people eat, and some rest. Some poor folk sleep on benches or wall ledges, while activity goes on around them. Animals are seen resting, as an elephant lays down, a work dog tethered to a cart lies on the pavement, various zoo animals loll about. Idle kids play. Finally, a demanding diner in a cafe taps his spoon on a sugar bowl, and it awakens the city again, as the animals rise, then factory machinery starts up, and workers return to work. A paper press churns out newspapers, and a man reads a paper which is held up for our view… words leap up prominently from the page, first “Krise” (crisis), then “Mord” (murder), Börse (markets), “Heirat” (marriage), and then six times “Geld… Geld…Geld” (money, money, money). A storm of sorts arises, with the montage of revolving doors, wind, roller coasters and trains, rain, cyclones of leaves, a woman peering frantically over a rail into water, cut against P.O.V.s of roller coasters, churning water, a crowd looking down, a splash, eyes, fighting dogs, etc. The chaos eventually subsides, and the day winds down, as workers finish their day, and recreation begins. Children play in a lake, boats come out to race, and many kinds of races and games are displayed, finally concluding with a few romantic couples on park benches and the fall of night.

V Akt: The fifth and final act is devoted to the people’s entertainment at night. House lights come on, then many advertising signs are lit, and people go out to the theater. Curtains open on a variety of performances, including showgirl burlesques, trapeze artists, jugglers, singers and dancers. Audiences gather in a movie theater, and a brief glimpse is seen of Chaplin’s distinctive feet and cane at the bottom of a movie screen. As people leave a theater show, some sexuality is implied by a man’s hand caressing a woman’s bare arm as they enter a taxi, and her bare calf and frilly skirt are displayed. They pull away, ignoring a child beggar, and a lit up hotel sign is next displayed. Another montage of entertainments includes ice shows and hockey, skiers, sledders, indoor races, boxing and dance contests. The leitmotiv of streetcars continues, and rail workers continue to work through the night. People drink, flirt, and dance in beer halls and cocktail lounges, while card games and roulette are played. The city starts to spin wildly, transitions into a firework display, and thus ends the final act and the film.

Additional facts

According to Ruttman, a “hypersensitive film stock” was developed for use in this film, to solve lighting difficulties during night scenes.[5]

References

  • Hal Erickson. “Review from Allmovie“. allmovie.com. “the film was heavily influenced by the earlier works of Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, and was itself very influential in fostering the ‘city symphony’ or ‘opus’ genre”

  • Allan James Thomas. “Berlin: Symphony of a City“. Senses of Cinema. “…its emphasis on the beautiful and the visually dramatic to the exclusion of any ‘issue’ as such…”

  • John DeBartolo. “Berlin, Symphony of a Great City“. Silents are golden. “Cinematography by Relmar Kuntze, Robert Baberske and Laszlo Shaffer who took over a year to photograph the film which covered an impressionistic view of life in Berlin from dawn to midnight”

TWO BERLIN MOVIES FROM THE TWENTIES

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