SUNRISE: THE SUNSET OF SILENT CINEMA

by  WENDY T. MERCKEL
posted ~ April 25, 2019

 

One of my picks of films to see at the 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival was Sunrise…. I had never seen the entire film; well…maybe a sliver here or a scene there. But a coupla folks I know tout it as being really good. Guess if I want to be taken seriously by people I respect a heckuva lot, Iʼd better get this film under my belt. What better way than at a film festival, right? I had to strategize getting on line because I thought this would be a pretty popular film and I didn’t want to be shut out. So I gave up one block of movie time in order to have a good place on line.  ( Canʼt do better than #1, right? And as you can see from my pictures on the Table of Contents page, it’s lonely at the top ). My friend Wendy wrote an essay for me about this film…what to expect.  I saved it to read AFTER the screening and Iʼd like to share it with you now:

♣   ♣      ♣   ♣

Theresa, what you are watching, or are about to see, or just saw, is SUNRISE: A STORY OF TWO HUMANS.” I donʼt know a single silent film fan that does not think it is the greatest silent film ever made. There is “Sunrise”, and then there is everything else. It is a mountaintop kind of film, the pinnacle of silent filmmaking and arguably the greatest film of all time.

Okay, okay! Maybe not the greatest film of all time, though I think there is a case to be made in its favor. But it is certainly the most INFLUENTIAL film of all time, inspiring directors from John Ford and George Stevens to Raoul Walsh to William Wellman to Frank Borzage to Leo McCarey to Orson Welles to Edgar Ulmer to John Huston to Carol Reed to Terence Malick to Jean Renoir to Claude Chabrol to Éric Rohmer to Agnés Varda to….. well, you get it. You can see the imprint of “Sunrise” on films as diverse as “The Informer”, “Beggars of Life”, “Frankenstein”, “Manʼs Castle”, “Make Way for Tomorrow”, “The Magnificent Ambersons”, “High Sierra”, “The Third Man”, “A Place in the Sun”, “The Asphalt Jungle”, “Detour”, “Gun Crazy”, “Badlands”, “Le Bonheur”, “La Rupture”, “Six Moral Tales”, “LaLaLand”, “If Beale Street Could Talk”…I could fill up my whole post with movies that owe “Sunrise” and its director, F. W. Murnau, a debt of gratitude.

But enough gushing. 

One of the things you should look for in the film is the incredible richness of image, the camera work, lighting and the virtuosity of Murnauʼs mise-en-scene. The film throws every shot available at the time onto the screen, and many that were completely new, yet it does so in such an organic and unassuming way that one barely has the time or the inclination to notice it. The direction is in complete submission to the charactersʼ psychology and the movement of the story. This is pure thought on the screen, not fancy artistic posing. The result is an altogether overwhelming cinematic experience, an emotional journey made by camera; a camera which is inside the heads of the protagonists.

I don’t know about you, but I go to the movies for the emotional experience. The amazing thing about “Sunrise” is just how emotional it is with all this innovation going on. Thanks to George OʼBrienʼs dark and heartfelt performance, Janet Gaynorʼs truthfulness, and Murnauʼs imagination, we see the dynamics of a relationship, subtle shifts in each characterʼs sensibility, and suggestions of thought caught by the camera in real time. What Eugene OʼNeill tried to do in “Strange Interlude”~ to show peopleʼs real thoughts as they speak, having more to do with their inner desires and yearnings than with their outward appearance or public selves ~ Murnau does with film. The characters’ thoughts are shown with the use of superimposed images – sometimes at the top of the screen, sometimes completely enveloping the characters themselves. What was so difficult to present onstage was fairly easy to do in motion pictures, given the talent and imagination of the director. I say easy, but it really was not.

All these superimposed images were made INSIDE the camera, by Murnau, and his cameramen, Karl Struss and Charles Rosher. Portions of the frame were marked off, the film was rewound and re-exposed with new images added, and then again and again, until Murnauʼs vision was complete. Imagine taking pieces of already shot film, taking a chance on losing the footage, and adding huge vistas behind the actors: an amusement park, or a gigantic coffee shop, or an entire city, or fireworks. Others had done this before, Buster Keaton, for one, in his film “Daydreams” ( 1922 ), which was ahead of its time. But no one had done it on the enormous, epic scale of “Sunrise.” Itʼs a breathtaking idea, showing thoughts on the screen, giving Murnau the ability to do without subtitles, for the most part. His previous film, “The Last Laugh”,  had done without them completely. When subtitles DO appear in “Sunrise”, they are almost exclusively simple dialogue, and they have HUGE import.

Murnau takes a long time to present his characters. In “Sunrise” two-thirds of the film is exposition, taking us on a long journey, deeper into the coupleʼs psyche and relationship. All we know about them at the start of the film is that they are farm people, plain and simple, and heading toward being old before their time due to overwork and the cares of a hard unproductive life. He shows us in remarkable cinematic shorthand their relationship NOW and the relationship they had when first courting… through the use of DISSOLVES of those superimposed images that fade in and out – memories they have of shared experiences.

Murnauʼs theme here is the dual nature of modern life…. the LOVE and HATE of marital relationships (or, for that matter, of any relationships), how time and monotony can completely erode oneʼs knowledge of a loved one, and tear a person apart. Itʼs as if Charles Laughtonʼs dueling “The Night of the Hunter” hand tattoos were placed on the screen as the mental processes of George OʼBrien, Murnauʼs leading man.

The ebb and flow of lifeʼs traumas and joys are played out in the most intimate ways, all inside his head.

“Sunrise” is structured in such a binary way that it somehow manages to be both extremely modern and old-fashioned at the same time. Iʼve seen each of those words used as descriptors of Murnauʼs masterpiece. The story deals with City vs. Country, Land vs. Water, Good vs. Bad (at its most reductionist), Light vs. Dark, and, of course, Love vs. Hate. The forces of nature and fate are crushing down and are often in opposition, so how can mere humans keep love alive under these kinds of stresses?

 

I think this duality as the overarching theme is what gives the film its modernity. The ability of the director to see good and bad within his main character, and to create an angst any person living would empathize with, makes Murnau a great emotional director, as well as one who could handle tricky filmic issues.

One cannot help but see the seeds of noir film here, especially at the start of the movie, as The City Girl (Margaret Livingston) promises The Man the excitement of city life with her body. She embodies all that he lacks. She is abandon in all its glorious hedonism. In a burst of joy after their passion has flared, she stands and dances freely for him. His endless toil and monotonous existence leaves him open to her wildness, while his wife seems unexciting and plain, due to drudgery and childbearing, and frankly, due to the difficulty of marriage itself. Abandon is a key word here, as the City Girl convinces our hero to not only abandon his family, but to abandon his simple values, by killing his wife.

This beginning part of the film is centered around nighttime images, darkness and The Manʼs lust. He and The City Girl make love in a field, the moon shining down on them as a witness. Is this where William Wyler got his idea for the opening and closing shots of “The Letter” (1940)? The moon only shows up again when the City Girl reappears toward the end of the film. She entices him with images of the city as a fast paced playground, shining and bright, far from the dull old ways of the country. The city superimposed over the beautiful landscape sends cars flying in the air above the two lovers, and buildings and sights so intriguing and seductive that The Man promises her they will go there together, after his wife is gone.

He returns home with two images in his head…one pleasing and the other of murder. He is heavy with guilt and anger at his lot in life, and Murnau shows this in the darkening shadows the Man casts on the too small walls of his home. The Wife, on the other hand seems to cast no shadow at all, and is always standing in the light, either by a window or a door. The window/wife symbolism is made clear in the many crosses reflected by the mullions of those windows. They protect The Woman, as she looks at her man, wondering what happened to his love for her. Still, she cannot see what is bothering him, just as he cannot see her suffering and her love for him.

I donʼt want to get too far into descriptions of the plot or action of the film, except to say that Murnauʼs film is always moving, both emotionally and physically. The couple eventually travel to the city in a boat and a trolley. They run across a seemingly endless thoroughfare, and enter and leave various shops and even a church. Each of these short transition journeys seem exceptionally realistic. There is an entire world created inside the frame of Murnauʼs camera, and sometimes it takes time to get from one place to the other. This is true of the coupleʼs mental states as well…. time must be taken for each of them to rediscover each other. So in a way, the audience is actually moving through time with these two lost beings.

There are long, extended shots, one as the trolley takes them to the inner city – we see rural life give way to the suburbs, and the suburbs give way to the hustle and bustle of workmen. When The Woman gets off the trolley to run across the street, that shot becomes a journey in itself. The couple are suddenly transported to their early days, in a field of flowers, as they walk along. Then suddenly, the city returns, rather brutally in the form of a traffic jam that the two have caused by standing and kissing in their own private garden of dreams.

These fluid, long takes of walking or driving are the precursor of some of those steadicam shots like in “Goodfellas.” Murnau uses deep focus shots to extend the length of travel in certain shots. Everything is fluid in “Sunrise.” When The Man drifts to sleep after meeting The City Girl, his bed turns into a floating river. The city is like a river as well, The Man and Wife float along as the crowd pushes them along. The film is pure movement. We are travelling against our will, into the future of this heartsore couple. Even the intertitles are fluid, moving like water, fading and coming back, dipping and dripping off the screen.

The Man and Wife end up in a huge coffee shop, where she sits and he waits for her to regain her composure. But even here, something is always taking our eye in a new direction….the waitress comes, the Man goes to pick up some sandwiches at the counter. We can still see the crowd flowing past the window outside the shop. The Man pushes a plate gingerly toward The Wife, offering it up as a gift. It is pure expression through movement and highly emotional.
This is, above all, an intimate redemption story, with all the epic size of the city and country pushed into the background. Its scope is gigantic, each frame has an entire world moving inside it, but the story itself is very small and subjective. It begins with the couple getting to know one another again, without obligation, in a place where they are not known and know no one. The city turns out to be, not a sinful place, but a place of renewal, a fountain of youth. Murnau turns cliches upside down in his masterpiece, making of this monster of a city something kindly and good.

Did I say this was a silent film? It is, and yet it isnʼt. It was made in the same year as “The Jazz Singer” and it has a soundtrack that is, for me, more exciting than anything the musical film has to offer. “Sunrise” has a beautiful score, fully as emotional as the events of the film. It is filled with sound – car horns honking, and whistles, and people talking in the background, or yelling. It has what is probably my favorite use of sound in a movie – a deep french horn meant to mimic the cry of a human voice, that of The Man, calling, crying out to The Wife during a harrowing storm on the water. It is eerie and frightening and plaintive.

So, Theresa, these are some of the things to watch for, things that help make “Sunrise” such an all-encompassing experience rather than just a movie. I hope you fall for it, just as I did.

 

[   H  O  M  E   ]