Monday, June 23, 2008

Target #213: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, F.W. Murnau)

TSPDT placing: #10
Directed by: F.W. Murnau
Written by: Hermann Sudermann (novella), Carl Mayer (scenario), Katherine Hilliker, H.H. Caldwell (titles)
Starring: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston, Bodil Rosing, J. Farrell MacDonald, Ralph Sipperly

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) is simply one of the most breathtaking motion pictures of the silent era, and certainly one of the most effective to have originated in Hollywood. However, the film's creative talent arrived from overseas, when William Fox, founder of the Fox Films Corporation, lured prominent German director F.W. Murnau over to the United States with the promise of a greater budget and complete artistic freedom. Murnau, who had previously brought German Expressionism to its creative peak with Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926), spared no expense at his new American studio, and the result is quite possibly his most extraordinary storytelling achievement, blending reality and fantasy into a wonderfully-balanced melodramatic fable of love and redemption. Though inevitably overshadowed by the arrival of "talkies" with The Jazz Singer (1927), the film was also the first to utilize the Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, which allowed the inclusion of roughly-synchronised music, sound effects and a few garbled voices.

Just as he did in Der letzte Mann (1924), Murnau makes sparing use of intertitles, and so the film relies heavily on visuals in order to propel the story and invoke the desired mood. During his mercilessly short-lived career, the German director subscribed to two distinct film-making styles: German Expressionism, which deliberately exaggerated geometry and lighting for symbolic purposes, and the short-lived Kammerspiel ("chamber-drama") genre, most readily noticed in The Last Laugh, which bordered on neo-realistic at times, but also pioneered the moving camera in order to capture the intimacy of a character's point-of-view. Sunrise appears to have been influenced by both styles. The fable of The Man (George O'Brien) and The Wife (Janet Gaynor), its time and place purposefully vague, fittingly takes place in a plane of reality not quite aligned with our own, without straying too perceptibly into the realm of fantasy. Murnau also had mammoth sets created for the city sequences, fantastically stylised and exaggerated to re-enforce the picture's fairytale ambiance.

The characters in Sunrise are best viewed as representatives of archetypes, performing a very specific function in Murnau's moral parable. The story's primary themes are forgiveness and redemption. The Man, a misguided fool torn between two lovers, is driven to the brink of murder, but manages to stop himself at the final moment. The remainder of the film involves The Man's attempts at, not only understanding the gravity of what might have been, but also to recall his former love for his wife. I can't imagine what camera filters must have been used to transform Janet Gaynor into the supreme personification of innocence and vulnerability, but she is the most heartbreakingly-helpless figure since Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms (1919). Even so, for the bulk of the film, the power to reconcile their estranged marriage lies solely within the hands of The Wife, whose role in the story is to recognise the remorse of her husband, and, in accordance with their sacred wedding vows, to forgive him his shameful transgressions.

The development of the moving camera was a crucial step towards the dynamic style of cinema that we now enjoy. Though the first notable use of the technique was in The Last Laugh, and Murnau is said to have used it even earlier, some of the sequences in Sunrise are simply beyond words in their gracefulness and beauty. In easily the most memorable long-take of the film, and perhaps even the decade, Karl Struss and Charles Rosher's camera sweeps behind The Man as he makes his way through the moon-lit scrub-land, before overtaking him, passing through a swathe of tree branches and arriving at The Women From the City (Margaret Livingston), who applies her make-up and waits for the married suitor whom she is about to convince to murder his wife. I first caught a split-second glimpse of this wonderful shot in Chuck Workman's montage short, Precious Images (1986), and it's a telling sign that, of all the four hundred or so movies briefly exhibited in that film, it was this one that caught my eye.

Currently my #2 film of 1927:
1) Metropolis (Fritz Lang)
2) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau)
3) The General (Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton)
4) College (James W. Horne, Buster Keaton
5) The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock)

Currently my #1 film from director F.W. Murnau:
1) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
2) Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens {Nosferatu} (1922)
3) Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage {Faust} (1926)
4) Der Letzte Mann {The Last Laugh} (1924)
5) Herr Tartüff {Tartuffe} (1926)

Currently my #8 silent film:
1) Modern Times (1936, Charles Chaplin)
2) Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. {The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari} (1920, Robert Wiene)
3) Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)
4) Frau im Mond {Woman in the Moon} (1929, Fritz Lang)
5) Körkarlen {The Phantom Chariot} (1921, Victor Sjöström)
6) City Lights (1931, Charles Chaplin)
7) Sherlock Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton)
8) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, F.W. Murnau)
9) Bronenosets Potyomkin {The Battleship Potemkin} (1925, Sergei M. Eisenstein)
10) Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens {Nosferatu} (1922, F.W. Murnau)

1st Academy Awards, 1929:
* Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production (win)
* Best Cinematography - Charles Rosher, Karl Struss (win)
* Best Actress in a Leading Role - Janet Gaynor (also for Seventh Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928)) (win)
* Best Art Direction - Rochus Gliese (nomination)

National Film Preservation Board, USA:
* Selected for National Film Registry, 1989

Extracts from reviews of other Murnau pictures:

"To fans of early horror, director F.W. Murnau is best known for Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, his chilling 1922 vampire film, inspired by Bram Stoker's famous novel. However, his equally impressive Faust (1926) is often overlooked, despite some remarkable visuals, solid acting, a truly sinister villain, and an epic tale of love, loss and evil... Relying very heavily on visuals, 'Faust' contains some truly stunning on screen imagery, most memorably the inspired shot of Mephisto towering ominously over a town, preparing to sow the seeds of the Black Death. A combination of clever optical trickery and vibrant costumes and sets makes the film an absolute delight to watch, with Murnau employing every known element – fire, wind, smoke, lightning – to help produce the film's dark tone. Double exposure is used extremely effectively, being an integral component in many of the visual effects shots."

"Frequent collaborator Emil Jannings is undoubtedly the star of The Last Laugh (1924), occupying almost the entire screen time, and playing the character about whom the story revolves. Performing with a passion that transcends the technical boundaries of the silent film, Jannings gives a truly heart-breaking performance that is worth the price of admission alone... I found myself likening the style to that of the Italin neo-realism movement, if only for showing an average, not-particularly-important man overwhelmed by the cruelty of upper-class society. However, several scenes diverge from this mould, most specifically a dizzying, wondrous dream sequence, and a tacked-on optimistic ending imposed by the commercially-insecure studio. Though it was not the first film to exploit a moving camera, I've rarely seen a silent film making better use of the technique."

"Herr Tartüff / Tartuffe (1925) was apparently forced upon Murnau by contractual obligations with Universum Film (UFA), and you suspect that perhaps his heart wasn't quite in it, but the end result nonetheless remains essential viewing, as are all the director's films... The tale of Tartuffe himself is worth watching for its technical accomplishments, even if the story itself seems somewhat generic and uninteresting. Most astounding is Murnau's exceptional use of lighting {assisted, of course, by cinematographer Karl Freund}, and, in many cases, entire rooms are seemingly being illuminated only by candlelight... Jannings predictably gives the finest performance, playing the unsavoury title character with a mixture of sly arrogance and lustful repugnance; nevertheless, the role falls far short of the silent actor's greatest performances..."


tosser/ressot said...

This is one of my favorite silents. Wonderful atmosphere.


ackatsis said...

Yep, it's a good'un.
Murnau surely knows what he's doing with that camera. It's just a pity that he died four years later.

I also hear that "Tabu (1931)" is very good.

As for "Children of Paradise," I'm afraid that it'll have to wait a bit. There's a copy at uni, but I just started my holidays, so I won't be able to get to it.

tosser/ressot said...

The only other Murnau I've seen is Nosferatu, so I can't attest to the quality of any others. :(

ackatsis said...

Your next stop will be 'Faust,' then.