Monday, 16 April 2007
Sunrise (1927) dir. F.W. Murnau
Starring George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor
“Sunrise” is essential viewing in understanding the history of cinema. It was made at a unique time, just before the sound era, (the first 'talkie' “The Jazz Singer" was also released that same year) when cameras were about to be locked down and put in sound proof containers, so on-location sync sound could be accurately recorded. The result was almost a depression in the technique of cinema, with “Sunrise” one the last great silent films.
The subtitle for the film is ‘A Tale of Two Humans’ and essentially it’s about a remarkable day in the life of a young couple, whose names are conspicuously not given. Played by George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor, they are billed as "the Man” and “the Woman”, which is Murnau’s attempt to make the story mythic and archetypal. The story is indeed simple. We meet our couple living in a small rural community leading a simple farmer’s life. They are newly married and blissfully in love. But when a dark-haired city girl comes to the community for a vacation the man discovers temptation for the first time. The woman from the city attempts to steal the man from his wife, and nefariously suggests he drown her in the sea and make it look like an accident. The man accepts the plan and comes close to going through with it, but at the last minute convalesces and repents to his wife.
The film then moves to the city as the man and woman play out the rest of their day in the large metropolis. They are both new to the city and so they are fantasized by the attractions, lights, cars and hustle and bustle. Director F.W. Murnau was a pioneer of cinema who had created landmark films such as ‘Nosferatu” and “Faust” and “Sunrise” would be his Hollywood debut. The portrayal of the city life is told with kaleidoscopic dazzle, typical of Murnau’s work. Cinematographer Charles Roscher and Karl Strauss’ camera technique is a co-star and is the main reason to watch the film. For the first time we see the camera to move and prowl like we see and take for granted today. But because the movement of the camera back then was used only when necessary it had a much greater impact. The most famous shot frequently shown in film classes is the couple’s first arrival to the city. They get off their tram and walk across the street through traffic. The shot glides behind them over rail tracks and in between cars, in what appears to be a steadycam shot of today.
Murnau uses some striking superimpositions as well; particularly the scene in which the man’s subconscious is taken over by his thoughts for the woman from the city. Sitting on his bed, we see a ghost-like image of the other woman embracing him from behind.
Even taken out of context of the times it’s very effective storytelling and highly watchable today. Often the melodrama and over-emotive dramatics of silent film don’t translate well today, but the simplicity and tightness of the story, make it work. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Sunrise
This is the only footage online I could find, it’s 10mins, but it will give you a taste of the film: