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
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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)

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The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The oldest films I have previously reviewed on this site have been from the years 1913 and 1914, and I personally think it is very difficult to go any further back in time than that when you are looking for good feature films. But shorter films of more than just curiosity interest certainly exist from earlier, and we now end our Short Film Month by looking at one example.

There can be no denying that D. W. Griffith was one of the most important early pioneers in Hollywood, which first started to attract filmmakers around this time. One of his earliest Hollywood productions was The Unchanging Sea.

Arthur V. Johnson and Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

These many years later, the film does feel a bit aged. The camera is mostly static; actors move around inside the picture as if on a stage. But this was conventional at the time, and even with this limitation, Griffith manages to create magnificent tension and visual poetry. The first half, in particular, is excellent, though melodrama creeps into the later part of the film.

Griffith had his greatest period – both in terms of artistic achievement and popularity – a few years later with films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919). But some of his early shorts are also worth exploring, and The Unchanging Sea is definitely one of them.

This film is best enjoyed for the beautiful sceneries of the sea and the fishing village. Griffith apparently built no sets, but used a real village in California as his backdrop, for excellent effect. The documentary qualities of this film are considerable. The film is also noticeable for an early appearance by Hollywood star Mary Pickford as the fisherman’s adult daughter.

Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The Unchanging Sea
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Year: 1910
Running time: 14 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Arthur V. Johnson, Mary Pickford
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: DivX (72 M)

Freedom River (1971)

This Short Film Month of October continues with a more recent film than previous entries. This time we turn our focus onto a very short and at first sight insignificant little animation that turns out to have layers of depth and meaning in it. The film in question is Freedom River.

Boats and "Immigration" sign from Freedom River (1971)

Made in 1971, Freedom River has to be seen against the historical background of the Vietnam war, and all of the political awakenings and awareness associated with that time. Freedom River is not, strictly speaking, an anti-war film. It is critical to many aspects of American society at the time, and that is probably the reason why it has remained fresh for four and a half decades. Many of the political issues raised in the film are just as relevant today as they were then, and since the film stays with generalisations, without going in-depth on any one subject, it feels almost timeless.

Surprisingly little information is available on the Internet about this little gem of a film. Orson Welles narrated the only voice heard in the film, and you would think that his name alone would generate enough interest for this film to achieve a classic status, but apparently not. One surprising and interesting comment, however, can be found in the film’s user reviews section at the IMDb. Joseph Cavella, the film’s writer, has this to say about the production of Freedom River:

“For several years, Bosustow Productions, a small studio for which I wrote several films, had asked Orson Welles, then living in Paris, to narrate one of their films. He never responded. When I finished the Freedom River script, we sent it to him together with a portable reel to reel tape recorder and a sizable check and crossed our fingers. He was either desperate for money or (I would rather believe) something in it touched him because two weeks later we got the reel back with the narration word for word and we were on our way.”

The film is not without its faults. The animation is very effective, but perhaps overly simplistic at times. Also, there is an undercurrent of patriotism that seems to suggest that freedom and prosperity are inherent in the very land of America (although the actual place is not named). The film would, I think, have been even more powerful if it had acknowledged that humans alone can create a good society, and it could also have mentioned the problems brought upon the Native Americans by the white immigrants. But these are minor quibbles.

This film is best enjoyed as a political allegory for any time. Until we have truly achieved Utopia, this sort of commentary will always remain a reminder of what is important in life.

Beach and houses from Freedom River (1971)

Freedom River
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Year: 1971
Running time: 7 min
Director: Sam Weiss
Stars: Orson Welles (voice)
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (242 M)