In various posts investigating the life and career of radical German performer Valeska Gert, I somehow missed her involvement in the 1930 film Menschen am Sonntag (“People on Sunday”). Admittedly it’s a brief appearance, coming about three-quarters of an hour into the film in a sequence which shows various people being photographed.
Menschen am Sonntag is billed as “a film without actors” (Gert being an honourable exception), directed by Robert Siodmak who also co-wrote the film with his brother Curt and a young Billy Wilder. It was independently (micro-)financed by its creators, a breakaway from the studio system which presented an alternative model of filmmaking still in practice today.
Narrative strands are interwoven with documentary-style footage of the city, but for all the innovation of the film’s approach, its subject matter isn’t the Weimar Berlin of experimentation, dissolution and darkened clubs. Instead, we see ordinary Berliners enjoying a summer of empty squares, busy streets, crowded lakes and quiet balconies. It’s a heartbreaking portrait of the sunlit city at ease, a vivid portrayal of insouciance which was soon to disappear along with many of the streetscapes depicted in passing. The film’s creators, almost all Jewish, would leave with the rise of the Nazis just a few years later. Valeska Gert left in 1933, but returned after the war; she was found dead on the island of Sylt on this day in 1978, although she most likely died a few days prior.
This version of Menschen am Sonntag has a score by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin. I think it’s one of the more successful of numerous modern attempts to re-score silent films, but of course you can always mute the volume if you disagree.