Friday, March 6, 2009

People on Sunday

Last night, a friend tipped me off to a one-night screening of People on Sunday at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan's lower east side. It's a rare 1929 German silent film principally written by wunderkind Billy Wilder in the period just prior to the Nazi reign of terror.

People is an example of early avante-garde cinema, featuring a host of non-professional actors whose day jobs mirrored the jobs they portrayed in the film. They all belonged to a budding collective of young artists making films as group-efforts with minuscule budgets; People on Sunday had as many as 4 directors, with at least 3 of those directors doubling in other capacities like writing and cinematography. Their eventual fate leads us to contemplate one of the great what-ifs of history; before the Nazi's, German artists were at the forefront of international cinema, pushing boundaries, experimenting with just the right mix of innocence and naivety that seems to facilitate all the great artistic breakthroughs in history. But of course it didn't last, with many perishing under the Nazi regime and others fleeing Europe in the largest artistic and intellectual diaspora in human history. A few found success in their new environment; Wilder eventually made his way to Hollywood and went on to write and direct some of the world's most cherished films. Others slipped into obscurity, unable to adapt to new languages and customs.

Though I've had to accept that I will always have some hesitations about the artistic value of silent films, I have to admit that People on Sunday has more than any other come the closest to approaching the ecstatic emotions and wonder I've experienced watching some of my favorite films. Yes, there were the overwrought emotional outbursts and pantomiming, and yes, the cinematography at times reminded me of a starving child let loose in a candy store.

But at the same time, People on Sunday transcended these limitations and shortcomings, crafting a story that touches on the ineffability of love and the alienation of modern life with the grace of a poet. We watch as four young Berliners - two men and two woman - make their way out to the countryside on Sunday, their day off. The day is filled with adventure, love, pain, and redemption, and sold without gimmick and with a moral ambiguity we might not necessarily expect from an old film. And though I still can't imagine a silent ever equaling the artistic power of a modern film, I am impressed by a film - as much as it's filmmakers - that's shot on a dime, populated by amateurs, crippled without a soundtrack, yet still capable of surpassing the quality of the majority of films spewed from Hollywood's factories today.

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