05 August 2008

Sunrise (1927)

d. F.W. Murnau / USA / 95 mins.

I've heard people say they can't see the magic in Citizen Kane because Orson Welles's aesthetic innovations have become so commonplace in movies today. As much I fervently disagree with that statement (full disclosure: I used to say it before I sat down and revisited Kane as a free-thinking adult), I don't think the same can be said for F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. Murnau's film was a technical breakthrough in its own time, on par with the work in Kane but still somehow different. Put simply, it's quite unlike any other film I've ever seen.

If you only had time in your life for one silent drama (a preposterous notion, indeed; why don't more people make time for silent films?), I think you'd probably have to go with Sunrise (often referred to by its full title, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans). It holds up remarkably well under 80-plus years of imitators, and watching it again it's impossible not to awe at the totality of Murnau's expressionist vision – the shadow-soaked atmosphere, the poetic art direction, the zero-gravity camera work in an age when film cameras weighed as much as men.

The plot is as follows: A man and a woman (never named, but amiably acted by George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor) live in the country, where the man is having an affair with a "Woman from the City" (actual casting credit there). The city-woman wants the wife killed, and the man and his wife venture toward the city via boat, where he is expected to throw his wife overboard, and yet...

Well, you'll just have to see it. At first the story seems a little too simplistic, and it's often where the detractors of Sunrise sink their fangs; there aren't many title cards because the film is so straightforward. But how then do we understand it as clearly as we do? The answer, of course, is that the actual storytelling device in any silent drama is neither the acting nor the title cards but rather the camera. (The silent comedies, like those of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, depend more heavily on the characters.) Charles Rosher and Karl Struss shared an Academy Award for their cinematography, which is among the best of the silent period. Gaynor took home the film's third Oscar, for Best Actress.

Murnau's ability to weave emotion with technical wizardry is undeniably powerful and still amazing. A lesser director could have produced the material with the depth of a wading pool; Murnau's film is infused with his masterly touch and its emotional range exists somewhere out in the depths under a diving board. (It lost the best production category at the 1927-1928 Oscars to William Wellman's war melodrama Wings, and instead took home a well-deserved award for unique and artistic vision. History has fallen on the side of Sunrise, however; in 2002 it turned up on the esteemed Sight & Sound poll of the ten greatest films.)

Murnau's German expressionist work back in Europe – where the technical aspects of filmmaking influenced the look, feel, and tone of a movie – made him one of the great directors of the early twentieth century (and some, I'm sure, would say of the entire century). In Germany he steered such classics as Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926). He was invited to Hollywood by William Fox to make an expressionist film, which turned out to be Sunrise. His next two films were made with sound and flopped, and he died in a car accident less than five years after the release of Sunrise, missing the premiere of his final film, Tabu (1931). Sunrise remains Murnau's greatest film and is among the best out there.


Margaret Benbow 01 August, 2009  

Excellent post, but I must protest the word "amiably" to describe O'Brien's and Gaynor's acting in this great film. O'Brien did the job of his life here--think of the scene where he's a hulking murderous brute in the boat, then the repentent husband brought to tears in the church scene, then searching for his wife's body in agony, then half-strangling the evil mistress--all of it powerful and believable. As for Gaynor, she was a wonderfully skilled actress who never really needed a title card in her life to let us know what she felt. She too was much more than "amiable" in Sunrise--although for real transcendence I guess we'd have to opt for her Diane in Seventh Heaven.

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