From Berlin to Hollywood

People on Sunday

This past week I watched a film titled People on Sunday. No, you’ve probably never heard of it. For one, it’s 83 years old. Secondly, it was produced in Germany (actual title: Menschen am Sonntag) outside of the studio system. Thirdly, it has no stars in it – not even German ones. Finally, it’s a silent film, so it doesn’t get shown very often.

Are you still with me? If so, you may be asking yourself, “so, what makes that movie worth writing about?” Well, I’ve got three good reasons why People on Sunday is an important piece of cinematic history: 1) it was made outside the German studio system as an experimental project, 2) it provides fascinating footage of Berlin during the latter stages of the Weimar Republic (the federal republic that would be overthrown by the Nazis), and 3) no less than five members of the creative team later emigrated to the United States and established themselves as major Hollywood talents.

People on Sunday mostly takes place on a summer Sunday and tells the interrelated story of five Berliners who plan to picnic at the beach. Shooting took place on several weekends during 1929 with much of the story improvised. The film exclusively features non-professionals in the starring roles, though the relaxed, unselfconscious acting belies that fact. The numerous shots of the city give the film a semi-documentary feel. Combined with the seemingly carefree narrative of these lower-middle class young adults, it creates the illusion that the camera is unobtrusively spying on real-life events.

Mid- to late-twenties Germany was a time of moderate prosperity, having survived the economic collapse that occurred after, and as a result of, World War I. In 1929, the country was just beginning to experience the runaway inflation that would create the severe political instability that paved the way for the rise of Adolf Hitler. The Berlin of People on Sunday, however, is one of normalcy: the mood of the characters is lighthearted and the city seems robust. The movie provides a rare view of the period. Metropolis

I enjoyed the film, but don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to oversell it to you as a must-see example of German silent-era filmmaking; for that, my must-see picks would probably include such titles as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Metropolis, and Pandora's Box. No, the appeal of People on Sunday is as much for being a notable social document as it is an entertaining film. So, if you’re interested in the period, or in experimental film efforts, it‘s something you’ll want to check out.

You may have noticed that I haven’t yet further mentioned the third reason for discussing the film. Depending on your interest in film history, the third reason may provide more cause to watch People on Sunday than the other two, combined. That’s because the credits show that the film was directed by Kurt (Curt) Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann, while the screenplay was by Kurt Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer and Billy Wilder, based on source material by Robert Siodmak.

That group of filmmakers (all of whom were Jewish) saw the writing on the wall when the Nazis started consolidating power in the early thirties and those five left either before, or slightly after Hitler placed Joseph Goebbels in his cabinet as Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Goebbels strictly controlled all forms of media, ensuring that they conformed to Nazi political philosophy. Some of the filmmakers went to Paris or London first, but they all eventually wound up in Hollywood.

The Crimson PirateRobert Siodmak entered the movie business writing titles for imported American films and progressed to film cutter. He was the one who convinced producer Seymour Nebenzal to finance People on Sunday. When the independent film became a surprise hit, Siodmak was signed by the giant German studio UFA as a director. Despite some success there, Robert and younger brother Curt fled Germany when all Jews were kicked out of the film industry by the Nazis. Robert spent several productive years in France before landing in Hollywood, where he would become an A-list director, particularly known for his stylish film noir thrillers. Among his many hits were The Suspect, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, Criss Cross, and The Crimson Pirate. Robert later returned to Germany, where he made several more films.

Curt Siodmak was a journalist when he took a job as an extra in Metropolis so that he could write an article on the film’s director, Fritz Lang. One thing led to another and he soon became a screenwriter. He would later direct and produce several bottom-of-the barrel films near the end of his career, but he remains best-known for the horror scripts he wrote for Universal, king of that low-budget genre. Many of his works were unexceptional, but among the best were the classics The Wolf Man and I Walked with a Zombie. Curt also wrote several novels, including the notable Donovan’s Brain

Fred Zinnemann worked as an assistant cameraman in Germany before his fateful association with People on Sunday. He immediately moved to Hollywood, where he became an assistant director for a short time before graduating to directing short films. From 1942, when he made his Hollywood debut as a feature director, Zinnemann worked his way up to becoming one of the industry’s leading directors. His resume includes such significant titles as The Search, High Noon, From Here to Eternity, Oklahoma!, A Man for All Seasons, and The Day of the Jackal. He was nominated for eight Oscars and won four.

Edgar G. Ulmer was a set designer and art director in German films before moving to Hollywood shortly after the release of People on Sunday. In Tinseltown, he would work in those same positions before breaking into the ranks of film directors. Ulmer bounced around the second tier of Hollywood studios, but is most identified with Poverty Row outfit PRC. Ulmer was PRC’s top director, helming their biggest-budgeted projects (I know, it’s kind of an oxymoron), and served as an unofficial head of production. Among his erratic output is what many consider the quintessential low-budget film noir classic Detour.

21Billy Wilder, like Curt Siodmak, was a journalist who became a screenwriter. After spending the early thirties in Paris, he came to the United States, where he became one of Hollywood’s top writing talents. In 1942, he was given the opportunity to direct The Major and the Minor, and the rest, as they say, is history. Wilder created hit after hit into the sixties, when his output finally became somewhat spotty. Who doesn’t know these titles? (if you don’t, you should): Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd. , Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and One, Two, Three. There’s not room enough to list them all! He worked in several genres, yet had equal success in each. In my mind, Wilder was the greatest director of the Classic Hollywood period. He won six total Oscars covering three categories (screenplay, directing, producing) and was nominated a whopping 21 times!

The Des Moines Public Library checks out DVDs for seven days for just $1.00. Our new policy allows you to have 15 DVDs at a time, so take advantage and create your own German émigré film festival today!