Prominent author and film scholar Noah Isenberg will appear at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York City on Tuesday, September 13, 2016 to introduce a free screening of Billy Wilder’s film MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG (PEOPLE ON SUNDAY) and then again on Thursday, September 15 to introduce a free screening of Edmund Goulding’s GRAND HOTEL, adapted from Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel MENSCHEN IM HOTEL.
Noah wrote an introduction to a recent English-language re-issue of Vicki Baum’s novel.
In this interview, I ask him about these two classic films, PEOPLE ON SUNDAY and GRAND HOTEL.
1) For people who haven’t previously seen MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG, what might you recommend they look for in the film?
This film is nothing less than an impassioned love letter to Berlin in its final hour of great cultural efflorescence — only a short stretch of time separating it from the apocalypse that came with the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. The cinematography by Eugen Schüfftan, who’d offered his prodigious talents to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis a few years earlier and is here assisted by his apprentice Fred Zinnemann, is truly breathtaking; the direction by first-time filmmakers Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, understated and natural to the core, anticipates the work of the Italian neo-realists; the script, if you can call it that, by a young Billy Wilder (still “Billie” at the time) is so simple, yet so deeply humane; and the five non-professional actors, each more charming than the next, manage to bring an entire world to life. In addition to all that, it’s a film that allows audiences to catch precious unadorned glimpses of late 1920s Berlin: from the city’s wide boulevards and the cramped interiors of a petit bourgeois apartment to the Tiergarten, the Bahnhof Zoo, and the inviting lakes that lie within the city limits. It’s a rare opportunity to see one of Europe’s greatest cities captured on celluloid in all its glory and vulnerability.
2) For people who have seen MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG before, what might you recommend they look for when re-watching it?
Like any great picture, this one only improves with each repeat viewing. You will see things you never spotted before, while appreciating the scenes you may already have loved upon first viewing. It is also illuminating to revisit the film knowing the future careers of those who helped create it—knowing the great Hollywood success stories of Zinnemann and Wilder, the less conventional, more subterranean careers of Siodmak, Ulmer, and Schüfftan. In a strange way, the film serves as a departure point—aesthetically, politically, historically—and a touchstone for most who were involved in its production.
3) A scene in MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG shows Berlin’s Hausvogteiplatz nearly empty on a Sunday. Please briefly explain the significance of that.
The film captures the sleepy moments of a city in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. Its central squares, including Hausvogteiplatz, are missing the throngs of commuters and other city inhabitants that normally populate its space during the busy work week. In making the clear distinction between work and leisure, between the hectic rush (the Berliner Hast) and the day of rest, the Sunday depicted on screen reflects the languid pacing of the city itself.
4) What are some of your favorite aspects of GRAND HOTEL?
Although Grand Hotel is perhaps best known for its world-class cast (Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, the two Barrymore brothers), what I find most remarkable is the dialogue, so very much of its time, lifted from the pages of the Berliner Illustrirte, in which the story was first serialized before appearing as a novel, a play, and finally a movie, all of them smash hits. I love the revolving door—so reminiscent of the door to the equally sumptuous hotel in F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924)—and the idea people come and people go, but somehow it’s always the same. Despite the studio confection that it was, Edmund Goulding’s film adaptation manages to replicate much of the spirit of Weimar Berlin in manner and speech, gesture and decor. One of my favorite scenes in the picture is the chance encounter and flirtatious conversation that takes place between Flämmchen (Joan Crawford) and Baron von Geigern (John Berrymore) in the elegant hallway of the hotel; it so easy to understand why Wes Anderson insisted that his actors watch the film over and over when on location in Görlitz while making Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
5) Please tell us a little bit about Vicki Baum and her novel GRAND HOTEL.
Vicki Baum was quite a sensation in her day. The only child of a well-to-do Viennese Jewish family, she published her first pieces as a mere teenager, around the same time she was training at Vienna’s Academy of Music to become a professional musician. The origins of her international best-selling novel MENSCHEN IM HOTEL (GRAND HOTEL) lie in a trip to the provinces she made as young girl; she began to sketch several of the story’s key figures in notebooks that she kept, and later, after relocating to Berlin to pursue a full-time career as a writer, published her work in the popular Weimar glossies, including the Berliner Illustrirte and Die Dame. When she finally serialized installments of the novel, her readership exploded, and GRAND HOTEL became a runaway bestseller, first in Germany and then across the globe. Baum went on to write for the movies, laying roots in Hollywood in 1932, when she worked on the M-G-M adaptation, and to publish many more novels. But it was GRAND HOTEL that established her reputation and remained her calling card until her death, in Los Angeles, in 1960. For many years, decades really, the novel has been out of print. But thanks to the NYRB Classics reissue in June 2016, readers now have the chance to discover one of Weimar Germany’s most acclaimed but unjustly forgotten writers.
Noah Isenberg’s website is here.
The author is on Twitter here.
His book on Weimar Cinema can be found here.
And please note that you can pre-order Noah Isenberg’s upcoming book on CASABLANCA at this link.