As St. Olaf German students prepare for a trip to Berlin this interim, their professors are offering a chance to learn about Berlin’s culture. From September to November, a film series titled “Berlin, Berlin!” presents German students with a sequence of movies filmed in Berlin throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
The first film, “People on Sunday,” was shown on Sept. 22. The film’s opening captions proclaim it to be “a film without actors,” as the cast playing the five main characters had never been on camera before these roles.
A loose plot threads through the 73 minutes of “People on Sunday” about two young men and two young women meeting and wandering the city. Yet the film only uses these narrative scenes as background for its true intent: to showcase the ordinary and genuine lives of Berlin citizens. “People on Sunday” was filmed over a succession of Sundays in the summer of 1929 and the people of Berlin are shown in documentary-style realism. Street sweepers rush through the gutters, picking up garbage. Parents prod their wandering children down a sidewalk. An afternoon heat wave sends the city in droves to the beach, where they tiptoe inch by inch into the frigid water.
The film’s most memorable sequence comes at that beach, where a man with a large camera offers pictures for a reasonable price. The film observes people staring at the camera with curiosity and fear as they prepare to have a picture taken for possibly the first time in their lives. One astounding, near minute-long, shot captures a four-year-old boy’s reaction to his photo being taken.
At first, the boy stares shyly down, nervously flicking his eyes at the strange device. Then, taking a deep breath, he forces his face up and stares into the lens with an unknown yet growing resolve. He holds his stern face for a moment – and then breaks out in laughter. For twenty whole seconds, the little boy laughs and laughs in joy and pride. “People on Sunday” is less concerned with creating a story for its audience than simply showing a real story already going on.
At the time of its release, “People on Sunday” drew attention for its unusual shots and camerawork, which became influential on Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s. Now, an audience is drawn to notice the vitality of Berlin. The people we see run and eat and swim and love. They are, at every moment, full of life. The unspoken, unintended and devastating tragedy of the movie is the knowledge that these people stand only a few years away from Hitler’s rise to power, and only a decade from the mass tragedies of World War II.
The differences between Berlin before and after the war can be seen in the 1946 film “Somewhere in Berlin,” which devotes itself to capturing the rubble of the city. “Somewhere in Berlin” will be shown on Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. in Dittman 305.
Additionally, four other Berlin-themed German films will be screened throughout the semester as part of the film series.