(director: Robert Siodmak/Edgar G. Ulmer; screenwriters: Billy Wilder/Robert Siodmak/Curt Siodmak/from a story by Curt Siodmak; cinematographer: Eugen Schüfftan; music: Elena Kats-Chernin (added in 2000); cast: Erwin Splettstosser (taxi driver), Wolfgang von Waltershausen (wine seller), Brigitte Borchert (record seller), Christl Ehlers (an extra in films), Annie Schreyer (model); Runtime: 73; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Seymour Nebenzal; BFI-region 2 DVD; 1930-Germany-silent with English subtitles)
Brilliant, youthful and seemingly carefree avant-garde silent.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer co-direct this brilliant, youthful and seemingly carefree avant-garde silent that was one of the last silents produced in Germany. It’s based on a story by Robert’s younger brother Curt. Billy Wilder is credited as a co-writer with Robert and Curt, while Fred Zinnemann is credited as the camera assistant to Eugen Schüfftan. Eugen’s the thirtysomethingexperienced cinematographer, who had a few years on all the other twentysomething greenhorn filmmakers and was the only one with actual film experience. The landmark experimental film, shot in the style of both a documentary and a fictional feature film, paints an engaging snapshot of Berlin in 1929 (showing both the bustle of city life and the leisurely life in the Berlin countryside). It was shot with five young Berlin workers who were not actors. The five leads actually held the jobs they claimed they had in the film: taxi driver, record shop clerk, wine salesman, film extra and model. The cast worked on their regular jobs for six days and during the summer of 1929 spent a few Sundays, their only day off, filming this plotless story of working-class Berliners taking a picnic at park located at the Berlin countryside. This is a film in which “nothing actually happens,” except for some flirtations and youthful spurts of energy, nevertheless behind the cheerful romantic day in the park there’s a hidden sadness indicating that the five workers are trapped in an everyday grind that they can’t escape from.

“People” was a well-received and influential experimental film among international filmmakers at the time of its theater release, and the young filmmakers responsible for the film were soon to land in Hollywood. Interestingly, they all had noteworthy careers as more or less famous and acclaimed filmmakers in LaLa land. What’s also amazing, is that this film is grounded in realism yet when viewed in the next century does not appear to be outdated as most films of that ilk would be.

The liner notes mention that the original negative of the film was lost and no complete copy exists. Nevertheless this beautifully restored version, reconstructed by the Netherlands Film Museum, looks grand.

The sporty dressed wine seller Wolfgang picks up the pert film extra Christl at a busy Berlin trolley stop on Saturday and makes a date to meet her at Nikolassee beach on Sunday. Meanwhile taxi driver Erwin has a minor domestic spat with his live-in girlfriend model Annie, and she stays home in bed in their cramped apartment rather than accompany Erwin and Wolf to the park on Sunday. Christl brings along her cute blonde girlfriend Brigitte, a shopworker, someone Wolf soon makes known that he’s more attracted to than his date after Christl refuses to kiss him. There’s a lot of flirtation and playfulness among the foursome, as they swim, frolic, picnic, and the one couple that just switched partners sneak in some kissing in the bushes. The foursome also go boat-paddling on the lake, and soon find themselves heading home for another long work week–whereby you can almost see them thinking how short is their only day-off (and for that matter, deeper thinkers than these superficial characters might think how fast their life is flying by).

I really enjoyed this unpretentious pic, a seemingly lighthearted film that gave no indication of the soon to come dark days in Germany. I consider it essential viewing, if one wants to see Germany at play in the days before the Third Reich came to power. Flaherty and Vertov tried similar styles of cinema verite documentary and fictional filmmaking, and their great films were better known but not necessarily greater achievements. This film unfortunately suffered in popularity after being put out of circulation for one reason or another for far too long, but this excellently packaged DVD put out by the British Film Institute gives a new generation a chance to now discover this lost film gem.