People On Sunday 2010

Joint SUMMER SCHOOL of the UCLA Film School and the ifs internationale filmschule köln

“Pragmatism vs. Theory” – or Getting the Story Right

by Becky Smith

I pride myself on being decisive as a film director, organized, able to think quickly on my feet, good at pre-planning, and good at changing the game plan if something goes awry. As a teacher, one of my main goals is to make sure film directing students “get the story right” before they go into production. From my perspective, that means having the key elements of successful story telling in place in the script – (elements I won’t enumerate in this blog entry.) I urge students to take an active, smart approach to pre-producing their films – finding locations that are workable and effective, crew that will serve the project well, actors whose performances will transcend the story and production values.

What I don’t deal with much, because it’s not my forte, and because there doesn’t seem to be much “time” for it, is thinking critically, or theoretically, about the work before we begin. In the film school where I teach, critical studies are separate from production. They have their classes, we have our classes. To us, they are philosophers, airy, imaginative but impractical, of the mind. To us (at least to me), we are the practical ones, the worker bees who make things happen.

In our ifs/UCLA collaboration this summer, we did things differently. Gundolf Freyermuth, with input from Lisa Gotto and Chris Horak, was the brainchild behind the collaboration between UCLA and ifs film students. Gundolf is a prolific writer, journalist, and film theorist. Lisa is an exciting theorist who writes on film and culture. Lisa provided focus on ways of using the city (Cologne in this case) as a reflection of personal themes. Chris is the director of the UCLA Film Archives and a prolific academic with wide interests, particularly in immigrant film culture.

The Summer School Team in the ifs, front left: Becky Smith

Gundolf and Lisa structured our six-week program so that the entire first week would be devoted to talking about and thinking about key figures that were the inspiration for our collaboration. I’m referring to the German Jews who collaborated on the 1929 German film “People On Sunday” before most were forced out of Germany by the rise of the Nazi party and ultimately made their careers in Hollywood. Our focus during the first week was on Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar Ulmer and Robert and Curt Siodmak. Gundolf and Lisa both have a great passion for film. Gundolf has a particular interest in the émigré artist, possibly because of the years he has spent in the U.S. During our first week, we considered what it means to be an outsider, an immigrant, and an artist in a country where the language you work in is not your first language.

We watched Billy Wilder films, “People on Sunday” of course, and the two he filmed in Germany (and on Hollywood soundstages) after the Second World War, “One Two Three” and “Foreign Affair”. We watched Edgar Ulmer’s “Detour” and Robert Siodmak’s “Cry of the City”. We talked about cultural stereotypes, and why they are comic and ugly, truthful and ridiculous simultaneously. We talked about what “People On Sunday” tells us about the Berlin of 1929, and what it doesn’t tell us. We talked about what it means to use documentary-style production values and to work with cast who are sometimes not professional actors. Edgar Ulmar was discussed in the context of how one can be highly imaginative in a narrative context with very little time to shoot, and very little money.

The student filmmakers were given the next full week just to explore and absorb the city of Cologne, which is the backdrop of what will become our modern day “People on Sunday”. None of the American students had been to Germany before, and none of them spoke German. They would see Cologne, and Germany with – not émigré eyes – but certainly tourist eyes.

The filmmakers explored Cologne on bikes with their German compatriots, (who all speak English!) seeing the famous Dom, the cemetery, the river, beer halls, World Cup viewing arenas, parks and ethnic neighborhoods.

I spent the second week walking around the city with my digital still camera, trying to imagine what I would do if I were given the same exciting task. How did I see the city of Cologne? What stood out for me, what defined Cologne? How would I process what I saw, and find a compelling short story to frame my view? What would I agree on with the group to be key leitmotifs, the key questions that our four films would answer? I took photographs. I read a biography of Billy Wilder and an autobiography of Curt Siodmak. I researched “People On Sunday” more on the Internet. I fantasized about the task at hand.

And it occurred to me that our week of films, conversations, seminars, and readings from the faculty had given me more exciting ideas, more clarity, more contexts – than I could have imagined.

I believe that the most interesting artists pose questions (consciously or unconsciously) – and their art is an attempt to answer those questions. The theoretical portion of our summer provided me with more stimulating questions than any amount of practical preplanning ever could.

I, the pragmatist, had benefited enormously from just one week of musing, discussing, listening, experiencing larger questions before “getting the story right”.

Ersatz Documentaries

Prof. Becky Smith:

I’m reading another biography of Billy Wilder – “On Sunset Boulevard The Life and Times of Billy Wilder” – by Ed Sikov, Hyperion Books – and came across the following excerpts about “People on Sunday”.  I thought they might provide you more to think about…

“(In Germany) ersatz documentaries known as “cross-section films” (came into popularity).  Eric Pommer…was helping to spur a broad push toward a kind of street realism.

Cross-section films were… compilation films fashioned out of vignettes of what was (or at least could be passed off as) the common man’s common life.  Cross-section movies…were trying to capture the flavor of industrialized urban life through montage.  Rien que les heures (1926), The Man With the Movie Camera (1928) and The Bridge (1927) were conscious attempts both to stylize the documentary form and to make the form more real – to bring out the essence of urban reality by splicing fragments of it together creatively on film.

Structurally, the films were supposed to be loose.  What might seem to be a mistake in a tightly planned, slickly photographed fiction film could come across as a fortuitous accident in a fake documentary – a glimpse of real life in all its messy glory…”

The Films and Life of Billy Wilder I

Prof. Jan-Christopher Horak and Prof. Gundolf S. Freyermuth: Screening and Close Analysis of  “A Foreign Affair” (1948), Colloquium June 23, 2 pm – 4 pm.

In the afternoon, we screened Bill Wilder’s A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948), a film that takes place in Berlin after World War II, starring Marlene Dietrich, which features many locations shot in Berlin in ruins. In our discussion we talked about the way Wilder, then a successful Hollywood director, plays with both German and American stereotypes about the other country.

Filming a City

Prof. Lisa Gotto: Lecture, June 23, 11:45 am – 1 pm.

Every city is constructed, conventionally created by us. It does not exist as a clear cut container, rather it is the product of a way of putting things together. Look at a door, a building, a facade or a road sign; listen to steps, a shout or a car engine: these random sensory impressions are the things of the city. Thus, if we think of the city, we imagine space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols. But what does it mean for the camera to enter this kind of space? When the camera lays its eye on the city, it is preoccupied with the visions and the cultural dynamics of signs, objects and their signification in urban areas. And even more than that: The camera overlays physical space. It does not only make symbolic use of its objects, it is also able to detect what has been previously unseen.

Film does not just circulate images and sounds – it constitutes new subjects and subjectivities. It does not only show things or bring them to optical consciousness, but it opens up hitherto unperceived modes of sensory perception and experience. And by doing so, film becomes able to suggest a different organization of the daily world.

The lecture suggests that we should not think of the city as some kind of pre-existing core which comes to be rendered on screen. Rather, we should be aware of the complexity of urban-filmic interdependencies. This kind of complexity is everything from an actual location to an imaginary part of cultural memory. It is everything from cinematography to cartography. Since symbolic systems of signification direct our experiences and understanding of reality, cinema provides the map for exploring the city – a map which is so detailed that it covers the territory it represents.

Robert Siodmak and Film Noir

Prof. Jan-Christopher Horak: Seminar, June 23, 10 am – 11:45 am.

Wednesday’s lectures started with my presentation on American film noir and the role of German émigré directors, like Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Edgar G. Ulmer in creating that genre. In fact, we can see a direct connection between the crime films of the German Expressionist cinema and the American private eye movie in the work of these directors that goes beyond high contrast lighting and oblique camera angles to an atmosphere of dark fatalism and despair.

People on Sunday – The Screening

June 22, 7 pm – 10 pm.

On June 22, the second day of our Summer School, we had a public screening of People on Sunday, the original movie in its latest restored version. Though there was a soccer game being broadcast at the same time, the screening in the cinema of the Museum Ludwig draw quite an audience.

Most of them stayed on for a short video introducing the young filmmakers who are now trying to portrait city life in Cologne following in the footsteps of the brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann und Edgar Ulmer who 80 years ago captured city life in Berlin.

That night, some of the participants experienced the film for the first time as it was meant to be seen: on a big movie screen. The panel discussion between all participating professors showed: Everybody was very much impressed by the surprising modernity of this silent semi-documentary.

From left to right: Prof. Lisa Gotto (ifs), Prof. Jan-Christopher Horak (UCLA), Prof. Becky Smith (UCLA), Prof. Gerd Haag (ifs), Prof. Hans-Erich Viet (ifs), Prof. Gundolf S. Freyermuth (ifs)

The Films and Life of Edgar G. Ulmer

Prof. Lisa Gotto: Screening and Close Analysis of Detour (USA 1945), June 22, 2 pm – 4 pm.

Edgar G. Ulmer was the “King of the Bs”, the “King of Poverty Row” – a director whose work was shaped by the confines of economic constraints. If you examine his films, you will discover a labyrinth: you will run into mysteries, you will be faced with oddities. Ulmer’s films look dirty, rough and shaky; they seem to be full of mistakes. However, they often come closer to truth or authenticity than Hollywood’s illusions. By dramatising fissure and fragment on a formal level, Ulmer succeeded to create a particular brand of filmmaking; a style recognizable even in the cheapest of cheapies.

Detour, one of Ulmer’s most celebrated movies, is a film that plays with its own restrictions. Tending to ignore virtually all laws of standard Hollywood perfection, it delineates an idiosyncratic vision for that which strives against the accepted.

Robert Siodmak and the Weimar Filmindustry

Prof. Jan-Christopher Horak: Seminar June 22, 10 am – 11:30 am:

Our second day started with my seminar on the history of the Weimar film industry, in order to place the production of PEOPLE ON SUNDAY into the proper historical context for the students. I was surprised that most of the German film students knew as little about Weimar cinema and history as the American students.

The Films and Life of Robert Siodmak

Prof. Jan-Christopher Horak: Screening and close analysis of Cry of the City (1948), June 21, 2 pm – 4 pm.

After lunch, we screened Robert Siodmak’s CRY OF THE CITY (1948), starring Victor Mature. CITY is a film noir, but also a city film about New York. As we discovered, Siodmak actually remade a shot from PEOPLE ON SUNDAY in CRY OF THE CITY. A productive discussion followed about the film’s moral ambiguity, so unlike American classical Hollywood narrative and so much like German films from the 1920s.

German Filmmakers in Exile

Prof. Jan-Christopher Horak: Lecture, June 21, 11:45 am – 1 pm

In the next session, was dedicated to German speaking Jewish exiles in Hollywood, in order to provide a context for the week’s work to follow. As I told the students, over 1500 writers, directors, producers and other film workers were forced to leave Berlin, due to Hitler’s anti-Semitic blacklist. Interestingly, neither the German nor American students had any idea that some of Hollywood’s most famous directors were German born.

Short Description

The joint Summer School of the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) and the ifs internationale filmschule köln brings together young American and German filmmakers - directors, producers, cinematographers. In mixed German-American teams they are shooting several shorts about city life in Cologne.

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    Participants

    From the UCLA:
    Lucas Mireless, 2nd Year Director
    Iliana Sosa, Director
    Jeanne Tyson, 3rd Year Director of Photography
    Leigh Underwood, 2nd Year Director of Photography
    Ryan Slattery, Producer

    From the ifs:
    Nancy Mac Granaky-Quaye, Director
    Johannes F. Sievert, Director
    Christopher Becker, Producer

    From the Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts:
    Nina Frey, Director of Photography
    Jens Nolte, Director of Photography

    'Making Of' of the Project:
    Paul Pieck
    Nicole Schmeier

    Impressum

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    51063 Köln

    T +49 (0) 221 - 92 01 88 - 0
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    Geschäftsführung: Simone Stewens, Rainer Weiland

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