Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sunrise (1927)

Quick trivia question: what was the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture? The official answer is 1927's Wings, directed by William A. Wellman. But in fact, there were two winners that year: Wings won for "Best Production" but F.W. Murnau's Sunrise won for "Unique and Artistic Production." Over time, the dichotomy between those two films has grown even sharper: Wings, a romantic, expensive World War I spectacle, has all but receded from memory - or to be more accurate, is more remembered in name than for its artistic merits. Sunrise, on the other hand, was largely ignored by audiences upon its initial release, but has since become a film school staple and is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Indeed, the greatness of Sunrise lies not only in its importance to film history - for combining the sensibilities of German and American filmmaking, and for its array of innovative visual and aural effects - but also in its sheer beauty. This is not a stuffy old silent film, but one of the most ravishing and lyrical films I know.

To summarize Sunrise is to trivialize it. The film involves three main characters: The Man (George O'Brien), The Wife (Janet Gaynor), and The Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). The Man is a farmer who begins an affair with The Woman, who then convinces him to drown his wife. The Man brings his wife out on a boat to do the deed, but cannot go through with it. The rest of the film concerns The Man's attempt to repair and renew his relationship with The Wife.

Right down to the lack of character names, Sunrise has the potential for a simplistic, treacly allegory. That it is something more is above all a tribute to F.W. Murnau. Murnau was one of the most significant pioneers of German Expressionism - a bold, exaggerated style that utilized high contrast cinematography, oblique angles, and shadows to great effect. It was a style most famously used in horror (Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and sci-fi (Metropolis); it also provided part of the inspiration for American film noir. Sunrise does not sound like it would need this kind of treatment. But Murnau uses it to explore the dark side of its protagonist's heart.
Murnau's visual style in the opening and closing scenes - looming shadows, canted angles, and dimly lit shots - reflect The Man's estrangement from his wife, and his tortured sense of guilt. At the beginning of the movie, this estrangement is out of choice; The Man chooses to abandon his wife to elope with another woman. By the end of the movie, the two have reconciled, but after a fateful storm, The Man believes he has lost his wife forever. In shots like the one below, Murnau seems to suggest that without his wife, The Man is quite literally a shadow of his former self.Murnau's visual mastery also extends to his use of superimpositions. Several times throughout the film, Murnau uses these layered images to explore the characters' dreams, hopes, feelings, fears, and nightmares. This kind of effect could be cooked up easily today, but in Murnau's time, it was a painstaking process. Whatever the limitations of the technology, though, the superimpositions still hold up today as evocative, sensuous, telling images.
I've barely scratched the surface of Murnau's innovations. I could also point to his roving camera, in an era when cameras were bulky and usually kept stationary. I could mention his use of Movietone, an early soundtrack system, to include not only a classical film score but also numerous sound effects. But the real genius of Murnau's film is how seamlessly these techniques are woven into the fabric of the story. His direction is never intrusive or distracting, and he knows when to simply pull back and observe. During the long reconciliation scene, Murnau leaves most of the heavy lifting to his wonderful, expressive actors.

I'm reluctant to call any film perfect, but Sunrise comes as close as any film I've seen. The movie was initially overshadowed by movies like Wings as well as The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, released the same year. Within a few years, silent films would be all but obsolete in Hollywood. Yet Sunrise reveals all the possibilities of that medium, and achieves a level of purity and simplicity that few films can claim. With silent films as great as this, who needs sound anyway?

Coming soon to the blog: a trio of Nicholas Ray films!

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