An Appreciation – Sunrise
I once had a conversation with a friend in which we talked about great cinematic love stories. As the debate went further, I eventually pointed out F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), thinking that they would enjoy it. After describing it to them, most notably the fact that it was not only in black and white, but a silent film as well, they very quickly lost interest in it, which disappointed me. I knew that this story, which tells the tale of two people recapturing their love for one another, would be something that would appeal to their tastes. Unfortunately, their own preconceived notions of what a silent film is prevented them from wanting to see it. It’s a shame, really, because I felt they were missing out not only on one of the great romances ever made, but one of the most moving and technically sound films ever produced.
Do general movie-going audiences still seek out silent films in an era of special effects driven blockbusters? I’d like to think that many still do, because there is much more to be taken away from these films than just a history lesson. Silent films do exactly what films were meant to, and that is to tell a story completely visually. They did not have the benefit (or hindrance) of sound; we could not listen to people speak or hear a voice over telling us what we probably already know. Stories were told through montages, editing, matte paintings, and the physical performances of the actors. Sure, there was the occasional title card that gave us bits of necessary information and dialogue, but the best ones never relied on that. In fact, in this film, there are very few title cards used, and in another Murnau work, The Last Laugh (1924), he would use none for the dialogue. Without the use of sound or speech, filmmakers would have to rely on their technical prowess to effectively tell their stories. I would argue that this film is just as special effects driven as any other movie made today, and made better because none of it was accomplished with a computer.
The main difference between this and a mediocre film of today is that this used special effects to enhance the tone and mood of the piece, while still allowing the characters and emotion to take center stage. Way too many films rely on their special effects to be their main draw, which results in a product that is ultimately shallow. After revisiting this film recently, I was struck by how complex it was. Yes, I remembered the moments and scenes, the love that The Man (George O’Brien) and The Wife (Janet Gaynor) had for one another, and how that bond would be put to the ultimate test by The Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston), but I had forgotten how well the special effects depict their thoughts, feelings, and fantasies. Murnau, along with his cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, the art department, and special effects by Frank Williams, created an environment that is unlike the real world, and more like a hazy dream. And perhaps that is part of the reason why the film is so successful: because it puts all of these intricate details together in a way that is apparent, but not overbearing.
Take, for example, the scene in which The Woman From the City lures The Man away from The Wife for a romantic rendezvous under the moonlight. With convincing influence, The Woman From the City details a scenario in which the two lovers whisk themselves away from their rural lifestyle to a life of excitement, fun, and unpredictability in the big city. Together, they fantasize about that way of living, and for us, we see a visual representation, placed above them on screen. We see the bustling streets, the bright lights, the big bands playing music, and people dancing. It’s a convincing and well-made moment, one of the best in the movie. What I particularly like about this scene, along with many of the other moments in the film, is that it is not depicted realistically, but more in the fashion of a daydream. See how the buildings are clearly not taken from real life, and how the cars are obviously miniature models being pulled along a small-sized set. But in its own charming way, these elements work together flawlessly. With the right balance of in-camera editing and superimposed layers of imagery, the effect is quite startling. It’s not that we’re seeing a real life city; we’re seeing the idea of a real life city, and because of that, this works almost better than if a real location was used for this sequence.
Murnau was an import from Germany, and with him he brought along his expressionistic sensibilities. German Expressionism was the term used to describe a style in which forced and dramatic use of perspective would dominate the aesthetic of a film’s visual composition. Angles would be noticeably high, low, or tilted. Shadows and light would be used frequently, and many times perspective would be altered to create an odd, unsettling mood. Another great silent film that made use of this technique was Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). This would be the style that highly influenced the emergence of what would later be known as film noir, and we can clearly see the seeds of that being planted here. Ceilings and floors are seen in the same shot, the camera freely moves around the world, and objects in the background appear to be far away when in reality they are not. The homes and buildings in each scene are obviously man-made sets, but were meant to look as such. One of the best examples is the home in which The Man and The Woman live together. Notice how steeply the ceilings, floors, and walls close in on each other, the manipulated point of view playing with our sense of space. When The Man walks from one end of the room to the other, he is visibly walking up and down a steep incline. But all that is done intentionally. The purpose of German Expressionism was to convey the visual representation of dreamscapes, and here it is done to full effect.