Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sunday in the Park with Wolfgang

No, not that Wolfgang.  It's the name of a wine-seller, who along with several other non-professionals spent the weekends of Summer 1929 to make a film about the delights and ambiguities of everyday life and romance in a major city (Berlin).  People on Sunday (1930) is almost an unintentional classic, intended merely to earn its makers a foothold in the high-powered German film industry, which would soon become unavailable to them as Jews. 

There are many places to learn about the interesting history of the making of this film, not the least the package of goodies to be found in the Criterion release of the film and at this page.  I don't intend to go into that, nor the way People on Sunday anticipates Italian neo-realism, which is also rehearsed and rehashed in many places.  No, to me, the remarkable thing about the film is that it stills works.  It is not a stuffy museum piece, nor a mere time capsule of the Weimar Republic.  It can, against the odds, still speak to an audience.  The question is why.

Here's an excerpt, after the central foursome have been swimming and are now lazing in the afternoon summer sun.  Swimming costumes aside, they seem completely contemporary and modern.

Oddly, one of the aspects of the film which makes it most archaic rescues it from being as dated as it might be, specifically, the decision to shoot a silent film after that form had virtually died in the cinema.  But the film's silence interlocks perfectly with the other key decision, to use non-actors in the leading roles. As we know from far too much reality television, most people are pretty bad at acting, even as themselves.  There needs to be a simulation of the lack of self-consciousness and ease before the camera that makes the events being enacted convincing as real events taking place in the real world.  Delivery of dialogue requires real acting experience and training to carry off as being "real."  Liberated from having to memorize and deliver a writer's lines, the non-actors are free to simply "be," to just exist.

Second, the story is so natural as to be virtually off-handed.  There is no melodrama and no artificial "writer's humor" to be delivered.  What little story there is concerns possible pairings and re-pairings among the foursome.  Momentary jealousies, imagined slights and palpable delights.  This may be the most "neo-realistic" aspect of the film, its eschewing the conventions of theatrical drama, which dominated mainstream commercial film right through the 1950s.

Third, Eugen Schufftan's photography stays close to its subjects, dispenses with glamour and reveals the true, tousled and freckled beauty of these people.  It looks like snapshots of your friends, or at least of your grandparent's or great-grandparent's friends, who, despite your notions to the contrary, were also real people.  By ignoring fashion, it frees the film from the ravages of time.

I have to admit, that as a student of Brecht, Weill, Piscator and that crowd, it is wonderful to see the streets and byways of Weimar Berlin in its twilight moments.  One can sense how the city was a magnet for the young and the creative of that day.

Happily, you don't have to take my word for the virtues of this film.  You can view at using this link, or view it below via YouTube until it (probably) gets taken down.  Enjoy a summer Sunday in the city, preserved forever via hard work, indirection and accident.

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