A piece for Omnified by Jess Sweetman
This is the first part in a monthly series by Jess Sweetman, who will be exploring Berlin’s cinematic history for Omnified. You can read her introduction here.
Picking the first film from which to launch myself into a study of Berlin-based cinema is terrifying. I mean, they (kind of) invented cinema in Germany, and the art form here has as rich and complicated a history as the city itself. Faced with this almost insurmountable task, I did what any slightly-too-old-to-be-a-millennial film nerd would do, I turned to the IMDb.
First task: name a German filmmaker. Um…Billy Wilder! Well, that was wrong for starters – it turns out Billy Wilder was Austrian, but he lived and worked in Berlin so…fair game. Dear IMDb, what was Billy Wilder’s first film? Once more, the gods of IMDb smiled upon me.
“Menschen am Sonntag” (1930) wasn’t just Billy Wilder’s first foray into cinema. It’s an incredibly important film in its own right. Imagine you were flipping through a charity shop and stumbled upon an album you’d never heard of by the “Million Dollar Quartet,” only on further inspection you realized that it had been recorded before Elvis, Perkins, Cash or Lewis became famous, and in this recording they’d worked together to invent a new genre of music. Well that’s “Menschen am Sonntag.”
As mentioned, it was a young journalist called Billy Wilder’s first screenwriting credit before he became, well, Billy Wilder. Robert Siodmak directed the film on his way to sprinkle the dark fairy dust of German expressionism into Hollywood noir. Edgar G. Ulmer also co-directed on his way to Hollywood and beyond, while Fred Zinnemann acted as (uncredited) cameraman.
But before we get into the details of why this film is so important, we need to step back and look at the context of when it was made, because the miracle of this production is a product of the creative hub that was Weimar Berlin in 1930, the year the film was released.
The creation of the Weimar Republic in 1919 led to a creative explosion. The electricity of social and political change saw artistic debate and freedom of thought lead to invention, especially in cinema. The German film industry entered a creative boom at this time, according to film writer Marc Svetov: “Berlin was the film capital of Europe, its film industry rivaled Hollywood’s in every respect.”
By 1930, cinema trips were embedded into the everyday lives of Berliners. While the most-remembered and discussed films of the era are those of the Expressionists, Murnau, Lang, Wiene, et al, the Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity also flourished. According to an entry on German Expressionism from The Museum of Modern Art, New Objectivity heralded “a return to unsentimental reality through the art form.”
“Menschen am Sonntag,” shot on location around a bustling Berlin, is a shining example of the film division of the New Objectivity. But on top of that, the 74-minute silent film was so ahead of its time it could have been dressed all in silver and riding a Roomba. Nearly 20 years before Italian Neorealism, “Menschen am Sonntag” is set amid a plethora of lush montage sequences featuring Berlin’s ordinary folk. Richard Brody, film critic for The New Yorker, goes further, calling it “the original mumblecore film, 75 years ahead of its time,” citing the use of non-actors, none of whom ever starred in a film again, playing characters based on themselves.
“Menschen am Sonntag” follows five characters on a weekend in Berlin, and that’s about it. Wolfgang meets aspiring model and movie extra Annie, persuading her to meet him the following day. We are then invited into the flat belonging to taxi-driver Erwin and his girlfriend Christl and their rather terrible relationship, where they mess with each other (symbolism darling) by tearing up each others’ movie star picture cards. The trickster Wolfgang shows up to lure Erwin into a card game while Christl has a bit of a sulk in the corner.
The next day, the two men head off and meet Annie, who’s brought her cool record store-worker friend Brigitte along. Wolfgang moves on Brigitte like a rat up a drainpipe and she is apparently overwhelmed by his charms (I wouldn’t recommend it, Brigitte). Erwin hits on Annie, as only a confusingly sure of himself creepy man can, and is painfully rebuffed. Annie gets annoyed, they listen to music, there are lots of montage sequences of Berlin and its people, enjoying their day off work. The film doesn’t judge anyone: premarital sex, shacking up, it’s all fair game and pretty familiar to anyone who’s watched any of Wilder’s films. No one has that bad of a time, they all survive to go back to work on Monday.
I was surprised by the lack of fear or division in a film that is such a product of its time. 1930 was, after all, the year that National Socialists were first elected into the Bundestag, and Berlin cinemas were one of the places where divisions were played out. That year saw Nazis rioting during screenings of “Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front)” after the anti-militaristic book on which the film was based was described as “vulgar” by Joseph Goebbels.
In response, left-wingers demonstrated against “Das Flötenkonzert von Sanssouci” (The Flute Concert of Sanssouci), a film they thought glorified the Austro-Prussian Empire and Frederick II.
“Menschen am Sonntag,” however, keeps smiling through the adversity. In an interview from the 1980s, Billy Wilder said, “the younger ones preferred Berlin. It was a vibrant, modern city…things were happening,” an essence which is captured by the film. This is not a post-World War I nightmare-scape, nor is it a gritty documentary about the working class. It’s a film celebrating a still-new world of record players, Sundays off, and and the freedom to cavort. It’s about what unites, rather than divides.
It’s far too easy to see more than a few similarities between then and now. As I write this, the political divides in Western culture cut deeper by the day. Meanwhile, young people still flock to Berlin for its promises of decadence and unabashed creativity, while poverty and gentrification rage in clear sight. I can easily imagine the characters of “Menschen am Sonntag” fitting into the present day, Erwin firing up his Taxi.de app, Brigitte DJing vinyl only in a craft beer bar on weekends, and Annie answering creepy ads for “modeling” jobs on Craigslist. Just like the kids of Berlin now, the party continues, despite the looming elephant in the room. They are freed by the discovery of a new life, a new existence, a promise of a gleaming future that may, or may not, exist.
In 1933, as Hitler ascended to power, Wilder and Siodmak, both Jewish, left Berlin (Zinnemann and Ulmer had left around 1929). The city to which Siodmak and Wilder would one-day return – Wilder first in 1945 as a Colonel in the U.S. army, then in the 1970s to shoot “One, Two, Three”; Siodmak in the 1970s at the end of his career – would be a vastly different place.
Watching “Menschen am Sonntag” now in its gaiety is bittersweet. Looking at the faces of those real people enjoying their day, despite the hideousness of the daily news, makes me wonder what happened to them next in the violence that followed. Germany’s international cinematic reputation would not recover for decades, but Germany’s loss would be Hollywood’s gain. Wilder, Siodmak, Ulmer and Zinnemann, and many like them, would start again as immigrants, learning a new language, fitting into a new world, the world of Hollywood cinema, which they would go on to change forever – for the better.