Advertising “new century talking and singing pictures”, the Assembly Rooms – located on the first floor of the magnificent Leeds Grand Theatre – first became a cinema in 1907. More than a hundred years later and following its major refurbishment earlier this century, the renamed Howard Assembly Room re-opened as a second performance space within the building. Restored to its former Victorian Gothic splendour and decked out in an exquisite modernist style, this glorious barrel-vaulted chamber has continued in the venue’s great celluloid tradition.
To these films, though, and in what has now become an occasional, but nonetheless compelling series of events, the Howard Assembly Room has added live musical scores. In an innovative exploration of the relationship between film and music, previous projects have included showings of the 1920’s silent film Pandora’s Box, with live accompaniment from post-classical composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and his fellow Icelander and cellist Hildur Gudnadóttir; another silent masterpiece in Metropolis, this time with the Orchestra of Opera North; and with a live soundtrack performed by the Italian prog-rock band Goblin, the 1977 horror classic Suspiria.
This evening sees a rare screening of the 1930 German silent film People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) with an improvised live score performed by Gunnar Örn Tynes and Örvar þóreyjarson Smárason, two of the founding members of the Icelandic experimentalists múm. In what is yet another wonderful exclusive for the Howard Assembly Room, tonight’s performance marks the UK premiere of this unique project.
Described at the time as “a film experiment” and “a film without actors”, People on Sunday features five amateurs who play roles based on their real lives and none of whom would ever star in a movie again. Years ahead of its time, this is a film notable for being in the vanguard of neo-realist cinema and the many subsequent docudramas that are so prevalent today.
Directed by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer from a screenplay by Billy Wider (and an unaccredited contribution from fellow future Oscar winner Fred Zinnemann), the film follows the lives of these five Berliners over the course of one weekend. In many respects the storyline to the film – essentially an outing by four of the film’s protagonists from the bustle of Berlin to a lakeside retreat in neighbouring Nikolassee – is fairly unremarkable. Instead much of People on Sunday’s significance lies in its charming acting performances, stunning cinematography, the rare glimpse it affords us into the last days of the Weimar Republic and the unsettling sight of Germany’s inter-war army marching through the city’s Tiergarten reminding us of the country’s imminent descent into a Nazi regime.
The influence on film artists around the world that People on Sunday still holds today is brought into even sharper relief by the provision of Gunnar Örn Tynes and Örvar þóreyjarson Smárason’s live musical score. Predominantly synthetic in nature, the duo’s music may derive from an age that is light years beyond the film’s epoch but its energy, mood and innate grasp of light and shade captures the film’s time and setting to quiet perfection. Rather than opting for a literal recreation of each scene in the film, the two men improvise their musical accompaniment so that it can both explore, and then push at the outer limits of the dynamic that exists between sound and vision. The denouement of the film as four million Berliners prepare to return to work on the Monday morning and celluloid and music unite is breathtaking.