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Burden of dreams

By PETER KEOUGH  |  November 23, 2010

The film is often cited for its daring suggestion of lesbianism, but what impresses is the purity and pathos of Manuela's attraction to Bernburg. Intoxicated in one scene by spiked punch and a performance of Schiller's play Don Carlos, she declaims her love for her teacher to her fellow classmates. It's an innocent outburst, but it also sounds like the ecstatic idolization of Hitler heard at Nazi rallies. The obvious parallel in the film to the coming tyrant would seem to be the toadlike principal, a staunch upholder of Prussian rigidity who says things like "Discipline and hunger will make us great again." But Bernburg offers what a bereft people really want — a feeling of belonging, of being nurtured, of being special. True, she's benevolent, but put such appeal in the hands of a ruthlessly ambitious sociopath and you can see what happens.

After all this intensity, it's refreshing to watch the simple lives of everyday people engaged in banal amorality. Directed by Richard and Curt Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer from a screenplay by Billy Wilder, PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (1929; December 19 at 7 pm) uses actual, idyllically photographed Berlin settings and non-actors to tell its story about boys and girls and the loves and losses of a weekend. The film is also a pleasant change because it looks forward not so much to fascism and a world at war as to the future of cinema. All the filmmakers went on to Hollywood careers of varying success and influence, and the movie's style and sensibility would return in Italian Neo-Realism and in the French New Wave — not to mention in the blurring of truth and fiction in filmmaking today.

“Decadent Shadows: The Cinema of Weimar Germany” | Harvard Film Archive | November 26–December 19

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