Menschen am Sonntag (1930)

If Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt is a film about the city where the people live, then Menschen am Sonntag is a film about the people that live in the city. Just like in the former film, Menschen am Sonntag shows us many street views of Berlin, but there is a big difference: Here there are practically always people in focus, rather than just rushing past. Another difference is that here we find little work or of night life, and much leisure time.

Christl in Menschen am Sonntag / People on Sunday (1930)

Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday in English) focuses on a day in the lives of four young Berliners. The titles in the beginning very carefully point out that these four are not professional actors, but that they play themselves. According to Wikipedia, this appears to be correct, although the story around them seems to be entirely fabricated. Thus, the film becomes a fascinating mix between reality and fiction. It is hard to know where the one ends and the other begins. For example, is Erwin really married to the tired and quarrelsome woman whom we find in that role? Perhaps not, but what about the apartment where they live in the film? Is that his real-life apartment? We are never told.

The plot of the film is fairly simple. Wolfgang is out walking when he comes across Christl, a pretty girl who seems to have been stood up. He buys her some coffe and invites her to join him at the recreational area Nikolassee the next day, which is a Sunday. When they meet next day, each has brought a friend, and Wolfgang is immediately taken in by Christl’s beautiful friend Brigitte. The four of them swim, eat and go for a boat ride. By and by, Wolfgang is becoming more and more intimate with Brigitte, whilst at the same time trying to keep Christl in the dark.

Except for some domestic scenes at Erwin’s apartment, that is more or less everything that happens in this very unusual film. But no more is needed.

This film is best enjoyed as a slice of life from interwar Germany, shortly before the Nazis came to power. It is an excellent complement to Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt, from about the same time, since both films focus on the same city but from very different angles.

Wolfgang, Christl and Brigitte at Nikolassee in Menschen am Sonntag / People on Sunday (1930)

Menschen am Sonntag
Download link
Year: 1930
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Language: German (English subtitles)
Director: Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: H.264 (438 M)

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927)

To document a single day in a big city, without doing so through the viewpoint of a single protagonist, would perhaps seem like a pretty rotten idea. Yet that is what the film Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: The Symphony of a Metropolis) sets out to do. And thanks to the excellent filming and cutting, there is not a single dull minute in it.

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927)

In fact, it is not entirely correct to say that there is no protagonist in the film. The protagonist is the city itself. All the people we see are deindividualised and impersonal, but they are part of the larger entity and organism that makes up the city they live in. You can choose to see the people as the air that the city breathes.

The film is subdivided into five acts, each of which deals with a particular part of the day. For example, the film begins with a train moving into the city, and through the eyes of people arriving with that early morning train we see the city slowly waking up. Another act deals with people going to lunch, and in one of the film’s many instances of dry humour, the lunching Berliners are shown interfoliated with animals at the Berlin Zoo, also eating their lunches.

As a piece of trivia for Charlie Chaplin fans, Chaplin’s legs can be seen briefly, as a cinema audience watch The Gold Rush, and the lower part of the screen is captured in the film.

The copy at the Internet Archive is not subtitled, but that is not a problem. Except for a few street signs and title cards announcing when the various acts begin and end, the only language you will find is the visual language of film itself. Director Walter Ruttmann wisely decided to tell the story entirely through images, with no help of words.

This film is best enjoyed as a one-way time machine. In its own time, I suppose the film was mostly conceived as a work of art. But today, you get to see the fashion, architecture, cars, trams, horse-drawn carriages and a myriad other everyday aspects of life in Berlin as it was 90 years ago. This is especially interesting when you consider that only a few years later, the Nazis were to take over, and in less than 20 years, most of the city would lay in ruins. The film allows us, for a brief hour, to take part in the lives of people who are no longer living, and to breathe with a city that is now a totally different entity.

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927)

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt
Download link
Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 4 min
Language: No title cards
Director: Walter Ruttmann
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (672×508; not counting black border)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (432 M)

Three Songs About Lenin (1934)

Vladimir Lenin was the leader of the Soviet Union for only six years before he died. Ten years after his death, the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov made a spectacular propaganda film, celebrating the great leader: Three Songs About Lenin (Три песни о Ленине or Tri pesni o Lenine in Russian).

Three Songs 
About Lenin / Three Songs of Lenin / Tri pesni o Lenine / Три песни о Ленине (1934)

As the title implies, the film is based upon three songs. Those songs were, so we are told, written and sung by anonymous Russians in their great love for their lost leader. I have no idea if this is true, but considering the naivete of the lyrics, it just may be. Unfortunately, we hear very little (perhaps nothing) of the original music of those lyrics. The lyrics themselves are presented as intertitles, to the background of a musical score that mostly consists of classical music by Russian composers. In my mind, this produces a somewhat jarring discord. I would much rather have listened to a score based on Russian folk music, which would have made the images come to life in a much more powerful way.

Each song expresses its own theme and its own message about Lenin, but today those messages are subservient to the means of expression. Vertov skillfully achieves a mixture of sentimentality and pride by interweaving images of nature, cities, factories, Lenin himself (from archive footage) and not least fascinating images of people.

This is the second film I have seen by Dziga Vertov, after (Man with a Movie Camera (1929)), and I guess comparison is inevitable. The older film is a playful avant-garde experiment, full of surprises and amusing banalities. Three Songs About Lenin, in contrast, attempts to be much more serious, but because of the heavy propaganda, it has aged much more rapidly, even though it was made five years later. Also, even though it was made well into the sound era, Vertov seems unable to let go of the silent era conventions. He does include a handful of monologues, but instead of using voice-over narration, he sticks to intertitles, which break the flow of the narrative.

The film was apparently re-edited in the 1960s. I suspect that the version available at the Internet Archive is that edited version.

Three Songs About Lenin certainly has its share of weaknesses. If you want to start exploring Soviet cinema, there are better places to go. But it has strengths, too.

This film is best enjoyed for its cleverly woven tapestry, partly made of archive footage, partly of scenes shot especially for this film. The propagandistic themes and symbolism are effective and powerful, and I am sure one could spend a lot of time exploring the depths of Vertov’s artistry in its better moments.

Vladimir Lenin double exposure in Three Songs 
About Lenin / Three Songs of Lenin / Tri pesni o Lenine / Три песни о Ленине (1934)

Three Songs About Lenin
Download link
Year: 1934
Running time: 58 min
Language: English/Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Dziga Vertov
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (549×412)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (700 M)

Triumph des Willens (1935)

Last week I wrote about the American World War II propaganda film The Nazis Strike (1943), a film which made heavy use of the enemy’s own propaganda films, showing them in a very different light. One of the sources most prominently used in The Nazis Strike is Leni Riefenstahl’s classic Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) about the 1934 Nazi congress at Nuremberg.

Sieg heil! to Adolf Hitler and the swastika in Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will (1935)

Riefenstahl had already made a similar film about the 1933 Nazi party congress, Sieg des Glaubens (1933), which is also available at the Internet Archive. I have not seen the older film (which is said to be of great historical value), but I have been told that Triumph des Willens is much more polished and better propaganda.

If you are interested in Riefentahl’s career, incidentally, you will also want to check out the silent film Der heilige Berg, where she participates as an actor before becoming a director.

I think Triumph des Willens has much to teach us about today’s political climate. It teaches us what can hide behind seemingly harmless rhetorics; it teaches us about the power of mass psychology; hopefully it also teaches us that in order to build a peaceful world, you have to look beyond your own borders and beyond your own social group.

This film is best enjoyed in small pieces. The entire film, with all the speeches by almost-forgotten Nazi officials, feels rather stiff today unless you have a strong interest in Nazi propaganda and ideology. But it is certainly both educational, and to some extent enjoyable, to watch some classic sequences, not least the beginning with Hitler’s flight to Nuremberg and ensuing triumphant motorcade. Another classic is Hitler’s concluding eight-minute speech, containing a lot of tosh about the superiority of the German people in general and its leaders in particular. If you have already seen The Nazis Strike, it is very interesting to watch this film to see the material in its original context.

Adolf Hitler: "We carry the best blood and we know this." in Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will (1935)

Triumph des Willens
Download link
Year: 1935
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 44 min
Director: Leni Riefenstahl
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: H.264 (619 M)

The First of the Few (1942)

As I have previously mentioned, it is 75 years ago this year that World War II began. One year later, the Germans were attacking in full force during the Battle of Britain, a battle which has been depicted in movies on several occasions. The battle ended on October 31, 1940.

The most important (or, at any rate, the most legendary) British fighter in that battle was the Spitfire. Spitfire was designed by R.J. Mitchell, who unfortunately did not live to see his creation in battle. His life and career inspired the film The First of the Few which was released in the middle of the war.

Leslie Howard as R.J. Mitchell in The First of the Few (1942)

The original title was inspired by a famous Winston Churchill quote. When the same film was released in America, it was unfortunately cut down and renamed to the bland Spitfire (that version is also available for download, though I strongly recommend the original).

The First of the Few, like many other films of its kind, is wartime propaganda, though its propagandistic elements do not disturb. It must be noted, however that like so many other historical dramas, this is not a good retelling of true historical events. Director and leading actor Leslie Howard chose to alter events and characters as it best suited the telling of his story.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a fan of David Niven (who plays the fighter pilot Geoffrey Crisp) or if you like this kind of nice biographical pictures.

Supermarine Spitfire in The First of the Few (1942)

The First of the Few
Download link
Year: 1942
Running time: 1 h 54 min
Director: Leslie Howard
Stars: Leslie Howard, David Niven
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (384×288)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (903 M)