Shooting on weekends, a team of young, Jewish filmmaker-wannabes in 1920s Berlin made a classic film-and launched several major Hollywood careers.
The motion picture's dual appeal as both an art and a pastime is tied up in the camera's ability to capture reality at the same time that it conveys fiction. Movies are an enchanting admixture of unvarnished truth and comforting anecdote, or, to paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, they can offer a slice of life and a slice of cake. This seems particularly true of the 1929 German independent film People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag). Shot on weekends, and on a shoestring budget, the film features five young Berliners essentially playing themselves. Its "plot" is gossamer thin, the action confined to a single day, roughly, and centered on a double-date outing to a park. The movie was a modest effort devised as a calling card for some would-be filmmakers with a rough-hewn aesthetic unlike anything coming out of Berlin's prewar powerhouse film industry. Yet, in the history of film, it proved to be of major importance.
In his liner notes to the British Film Institute's home video release of the film (the longest extant version; the DVD remains unavailable in North America), film historian Philip Kemp describes People on Sunday as, "fresh, light hearted, and remarkably forward looking, deftly anticipating several future revolutions in movie making technique." Indeed, the film's improvisatory, shot-on-location (except for one interior set) production, and clever blending of reality and fiction predates Jean Renoir's loosely scripted pastoral films Toni and Partie de Campagne; forties Hollywood experiments in location shooting; the work of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, and others identified with the postwar Italian neo-realist school; Morris Engel's revolutionary 1953 Brooklyn-set fable, Little Fugitive; and the boundary-pushing fifties and sixties films of the French New Wave.
And as described in the new documentary Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood, People on Sunday bears other important legacies. The film was the product of a unique, once-in-a-lifetime collaboration among a half dozen young filmmakers who would go on to even greater individual glory. In the decades after making People on Sunday together, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar Ulmer, Curt Siodmak, and Eugen Schufftan would refine and redefine cinema on both sides of the Atlantic. But their sole collaboration created a film of unusual maturity that is both acutely of the moment and at the same time ageless, which is all the more remarkable since, for many of those involved. People on Sunday was their first autonomous filmmaking experience.
Describing a similarly defining meeting of young musical minds in Memphis, Tennessee, some twenty-six years later, Memphis journalist Bob Johnson referred to the results of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash's impromptu studio collaboration, in what became known as "The Million Dollar Quartet," as "kind of like coming from the same womb." In the case of two of the central creative architects of People on Sunday, that shared biological origin was literally the case.
Robert and Curt (né Kurt) Siodmak were born in 1900 and 1902, respectively, in Dresden. The Siodmaks lived comfortably off their furrier and inventor father's considerable business success. But "my parents' marriage wasn't a happy one," Curt recalled many years later in an interview in Patrick McGilligan's second compendium of interviews with Hollywood screenwriters, Backstory 2. "Though we were brought up in our early life with governesses in an affluent surrounding, we were rebels and left the family at an early age." Both Siodmak brothers harbored artistic ambitions. "I wanted to write novels and short stories," Curt said. And Robert? "He wanted to direct." They initially settled for journalism and acting, respectively, and relocated to Berlin around 1925. …