Watching the Sunrise: A Tribute

By way of introduction to F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise, one can’t do much better than Rachael K Bosley’s remarks in the June 2003 American Cinematographer about the then recent DVD release of the film (which was, of all things, an odd mail-in promotion from 20th Century Fox):

At heart a simple melodrama about a philandering husband (George O’Brien) who rediscovers his love for his wife (Janet Gaynor), Sunrise is a film whose visual complexity was unmatched upon its release in 1927. It was the first American film made by German Expressionist director F.W. Murnau, and at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, Sunrise earned the only such award ever bestowed for ”Most Unique and Artistic Production.” It also earned the first Academy Award for cinematography, an honor shared by Charles Rosher, ASC and Karl Struss (whom Rosher successfully nominated for ASC membership following Sunrise‘s release). Cinematographers of all ages continue to cite the film as a favorite. (16)

The accolades by cinematographers are well-placed. The use of light in the mise-en-scene was a notable departure from typical Hollywood productions, and even from Murnau’s earlier work, especially Nosferatu. John Bailey, ASC likens many compositions to Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch Painter most notable for his Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665). Indeed, the influence of the masters abound. The climax plays with light and dark the way Caravaggio might. Entire scenes in the finale are lit chiaroscuro, and pure black bleeds across the frame for much of what is the bleakest and most disparaging point of the film.

George O’Brien as The Man seduced by Margaret Livingstone’s Woman from the City

Widely hailed as one of the greatest films ever made (it ranked fifth on Sight and Sound’s top 10 greatest film ever in 2012, some 85 years after its release), it also appears one of the least seen. In fact, though it enjoys an 8.4 on IMDB, a score that would rank it within the top 100 films on IMDB, the total number of votes is so low (only 21,000 as of this writing) that it fails to make the rank in the top 250. I offer this number with some hesitation, since I’ve previously railed against the absurdity of lists–much less those on IMDB–but the data nonetheless indicates what should be a troubling concern for the reputation of this film. Ironically it seems that by acknowledging its place as a masterpiece, the film’s critical reception, in conjunction with its age and existence as a “silent” movie (a descriptor that I will come to challenge) have effectively precluded many from ever watching it. In a similar fashion, one can only bear to hear Citizen Kane is a great film so many times without watching it before one has utterly no desire to ever bother. The declaration of a film according to any hyperbolic terms robs viewers any chance of discovering the merits of the film themselves. They watch the film with a mind towards understanding why it is so great, rather than realizing the greatness of the film for themselves. While this piece may only add more noise to the party line concerning the inestimable greatness of Sunrise (it is a tribute, after all), the hope is to humanize what is otherwise an engaging and affable movie, one that transcends its medium and which rightfully earns its laurels. At this point there’s no hiding the fact that Sunrise is considered great, but what I can hope to offer is a means of engaging with the film rather than keeping it locked in its hermenuetically sealed container.  With this piece then I mean to enable first-time viewers to approach and hopefully enjoy what is ostensibly an affective rather than purely intellectual picture. The joy of watching Sunrise goes beyond the thrill of seeing camera dollies and other camera feats performed (though there are plenty of them to marvel at, some used for the first time in cinema) and instead takes viewers into the realm of the senses.

Sunrise records Murnau at the peak of his directorial abilities, a story told almost entirely through pictures. As John Bailey points out, the film reads entirely without the intertitles (nevermind sound). In fact, Murnau had no involvement with the intertitles, which were added after his return to Germany—and which he was reportedly unimpressed with. In place of spoken language, the film is loaded with metaphorically charged images that beckon the viewer to decipher and enjoy.

Though ostensibly its chief impediment for modern viewers, the film’s lack of a soundtrack is perhaps its strongest attribute. The language of Sunrise is that of humanity, the film’s subtitle is not without accident “A Song of Two Humans”. The drama is precluded from schmaltz as it is purged of histrionics. It’s a drama told in gestures and looks, movement both subtle and extreme, always impeccable, never overdone and ever insightful. The film avoids the histrionic as it does the cliché–a point that bears more emphasis than I’ve given, so I’ll rephrase the compliment. Modern directors should turn to Murnau to learn how to speak, actors should likewise turn to the immortal performances of O’Brien and Gaynor to learn how to emote. Their natural presence on the screen is as fluid as it is captivating and nearly a century later remains, in a word, timeless.

Gaynor and O’Brien pose in the boat for a promotional photo for Sunrise.

As if not to be upstaged by its stars, the sets themselves vie for dominance in the frame. The bold use of raked interiors, recalls theatrical conventions (which includes the German expressionism of the 1920s) and is testament to the manufacture of the production. The city street for example was built specifically for this picture at a then staggering price of $200,000, which Fox was to reuse in many later pictures. It’s loaded with visual trickery, from model streetcars in the distant backdrop, to little people doubling for grown adults walking past out of scale building facades.

Though unquestionably restrained in comparison to films like the hallmark of expressionism, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and even Murnau’s own Nosferatu five years earlier, Sunrise nonetheless makes effective use of expressionism. At its early 20th century root, expressionism sought the rearticulation of the world through the personal prism of the artist. Formal rules of style and composition are bent towards that purpose, and Sunrise is perhaps in that sense the best rendition of expressionism ever made.

O’Brien and Gaynor in a publicity still for Sunrise that emphasizes the grand undertaking that was the city set.

Murnau cheats realism in service of his meaning throughout the film.  In an early example, traces of expressionism creep into the film with the introduction of the woman from the city. Her very presence in the scene seems to distort the visual field, with the odd slant of the dinner table, and with the top left of the frame brutally consumed by a lantern, it is as if she were a distortion on the very composition. The unusual mise-en-scene suggests there’s something amiss with this woman, a speculation entirely vindicated in the sexually charge scene between she and the man which follows. Pure vamp, deliciously and devilishly fatale, she exists only as a periphery creature that slinks in the shadows of the frame–if not quite so terrifying as Murnau’s more famous nosferatu, not far off.

A vast majority of the shots contain a special effect of some kind–far more than one would anticipate and certainly expect in such a film. Lapse dissolves, superimpositions, and matte shots abound. The first scene of the film–in the station of a metro, like Ezra Pound’s prototypical Imagist poem– is a trick shot, and sets the standard for visual trickery which proliferates in the film to stunning and still startling effect. Startling since modern film strives for the antithesis of the plasticity that Murnau and other directors (Lang in particular) would develop as their notable technique; stunning since it diminishes nothing of the film’s appeal. When a modern film exposes the seams of its artificiality it is often as a postmodern metatextual aside, or a poor bid by filmmakers to seem clever. Sunrise, however, bends realism to its whims and still achieves a sense of cohesion and skill to its artificial visions.

Take for example the moonlit impromptu honeymoon. Model though it is, the dreamlike quality of the moment is enhanced by the technique rather than diminished. There is a sort of heightened, imaginary quality to the boat gliding along the moon soaked waters. The same can be said of every special effect in the film, most notably in one of the film’s most visually dynamic shots. Behold the couple’s usurpation of the wedding ceremony where, renewed by their love for one another, they wander a city street that melts on screen around them into a sort of renewed Eden. The vision lasts only for a moment, just enough for a passionate kiss, before the real world intrudes with a cavalcade of motor cars. Marvelous and manufactured, the metaphorically dense moment is accomplished in one astoundingly technical tracking shot. It is the spirit of the film in microcosm. The remainder of the film chronicles this paradise regained, and we experience the world anew through their rejuvenated spirits.

I close, if you’ll pardon the excursion into the sentimental, with a further note on the film’s enduring appeal. The power of this story comes as much from its allegorical content as it does from its unparalleled narrative technique. The lack of identifying names for any person or place in this film is not by accident or by laziness, but rather to accentuate the ageless morality of the story, which writes the drama beyond the plight of George O’Brien’s beleaguered farmer to that of all men, as it does for Janet Gaynor’s resilient wife. We can all in some capacity sympathize if not actually empathize with their emotional and psychological turmoil, of which their experiences in this film run the full gamut. Who among us has not loved? Felt despair? Wept in sadness and in joy?  We are all pricked by the inner stirrings of our humanity which this film so spectacularly stirs, and to which higher pangs of feeling these moving images carry us. That I think is something approaching a description of the film’s power–but which can only truly be accounted for by an engagement with the film itself.

These words are, as noted above, poor substitute for the film itself, and struggle to convey its power. Feeble as I’m aware they must have been, with these same words I offer this movie trailer I made to compel the yet unswayed. Crafted using an obviously anachronistic but nonetheless befitting track, Arcade Fire’s own remix of their 2005 hit “Wake Up!”, this new trailer seeks much like the words before it to encourage new eyes to experience this masterwork for themselves:

There now, doesn’t that look like a film worth experiencing? Let me know in the comments below, and if you are swayed, please return after to share your thoughts.

A note on the home video release to get:

If you can manage it, be sure to get (or import) the Eureka Region B release. Though it contains the same transfer as Fox’s Region A release, it also includes a lengthy documentary about Murnau’s most famous unseen film, 4 Devils, and provides a rough reconstruction of the film using stills–the best we can expect to see of this film that appears to be irretrievably lost. Please note that if you live in North America you’ll need a region free blu-ray player to watch it. If all this sounds like too much hassle, stick with the Region A release, the transfers for both releases are identical for both the Movietone and shorter Czech version of the film. Also on that note, try to see the Movietone version first, it is the most complete version of the film and with the most effective score.

A Note to be Revisited After Watching the Film:

The beauty of the film is as much the passion evoked by its images as it is their artistry. A prime example would be that kaleidoscopic entrance to the pleasure dome–Xanadu rebuilt–followed by that stunning, extended dolly shot inside. Films were never conceived to look like this before, and the struggle to surpass Sunrise’s technical achievement continues to this day.

It is in this extended sequence of frivolity that the film arguably sags, however, elongated with a few too many sketches than seem necessary. Whatever the merits of some, one scene that is undoubtedly vital to the film, but which has been often cited as superfluous, is the inclusion of the Midsummer Peasant Dance. Though even the film’s most vocal champion John Bailey expresses some confusion as to its inclusion, the dance is, I argue, vital to the film’s meaning.

Agrarian and city life are in opposition throughout the film, most tellingly in the charged suggestion from the seductress that the man (O’Brien) sell his farm and move to the city with her. Adding to this conflict, recall that the temptress isn’t referred to simply as “the other woman”, rather she is “the woman from the city”. Thus with the triumphant Peasant Dance, occurring as it does in the city, and amongst city-dwellers, and danced exclusively by the farmer and his wife, is the triumph of the individual over the collective. It is the rejection of the city and the valorization of the folk, the rural and the peasant (the theme reaches its apotheosis in the denouement of the film when the city girl is expelled from the agrarian village–the new Eden, or an Eden restored).

The jubilant dance also shows the triumph of the couple. The Man’s leaden steps which began the film (Murnau loaded the actor’s boots with lead weights to achieve that effect) are here replaced by the fluid movement of dance. Thus Man is liberated by love for Woman. Their love manifests itself in the unison of their dance, which demonstrates the renewed union of the couple (the culmination of their renewed marriage in the church at the start of their city tour).  Melodramatic, sure, and in every sense of the term, but no less wonderful to behold.


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