Directed by: F.W. Murnau » Written by: Carl Mayer, Katherine Hilliker & H.H. Caldwell » Based on the Novella by: Hermann Sudermann » 1929 » Region/Time: U.S.A., black & white, silent, 95 minutes.
Starring: George O’Brien as The Man» Janet Gaynor as The Wife » Margaret Livingston as The Woman from the City.
While Sunrise is the first silent film on this list, it was actually one of the last silents ever made. As such, it is not a “true” silent, in the sense that it had a synchronized soundtrack that played along with the movie. This was a musical score specifically composed for the film, as well as some sound effects. There was no dialogue, however. The director, F.W. Murnau was a German ex-fighter pilot who was wooed to Hollywood in 1926, promised the budget-to-end-all-budgets, and ended up making the only film to win an Oscar for Best Picture of Artistic Quality of Production. In Germany, he had already made the silent masterpieces The Last Laugh, Faust and Nosferatu (one of the best Dracula films ever made), among others. He was well known for his expressionistic use of shadows and angled shots. Upon the release of Sunrise he said, “I think films of the future will use more and more of these ‘camera angles’, or, as I prefer to call them, these ‘dramatic angles’. They help photograph thought.”
Sunrise has a highly stylized emotional expressionism. What is represented is not plot and characters, but archetypes and emotions. The characters do not even have names, they are simply “The Man”, “The Wife” and “The Woman from the City”. From those three characters, it is easy to divine the story being told. It is one of love, lust and betrayal. The Man and The Wife live in a small, peaceful resort town. With the advent of steam trains and steam ships, visitors from the city come in crowds for their holidays. The Man succumbs to the worldly charms of The Woman from the City. She urges him to run away with him. “…But what of my wife?” he asks. “Couldn’t she get drowned?” she answers. The Man promises his wife a trip across the lake to The City. He is nervous and apprehensive. He cannot bring himself to kill her, although she sees the murderous rage in him. When they get to The City, she runs from him and they meet in a church, watching a couple get married. The Man begs The Wife for forgiveness, which she gives. Over the next half hour, they reconnect their love for one another, before setting back across the lake. Unfortunately, a storm hits, and The Wife is lost in the water. What will The Man do now? And how will he confront The Woman from the City who is waiting for him back in his village?
Expressionism pervades every aspect of the picture: the acting, the set design, camera angles and camera movement. One of the aspects of the film that was immediately apparent to the viewers of the time was the fluidity of the camera. It appears to float through trees, over water and through walls, imbuing the story with a sense of parable. The film also has many effects sequences of overlapping filmed segments. These superimpositions of images were created by exposing one part of the film, rewinding it and then exposing the unexposed portion of the film. One of the most effective uses is when The Man returns to his wife after The City Woman has told him to kill her. He is fighting the urge when multiple ghostly images of The City Woman appear and caress him – visual representations of her words convincing him.
At the time of release, George O’Brien, the lead, was a huge star and Janet Gaynor was an up-and-comer. After the advent of sound, however, George O’Brien went from leading man to becoming a minor B-movie western hero. Janet Gaynor, on the other hand, had over thirty films under her belt by the age of 21and won an academy award for Sunrise. Also appeared in the first A Star is Born (1937), later remade several times with Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand. The DVD is hard to find, although 20th Century Fox has completed a marvellous restoration given that the original negatives of the film were destroyed in a fire in 1937. It can only be obtained in North America by mailing in the UPC tabs of several other DVDs, or buying a special set with the wonderful All About Eve and the atrocious How Green Was My Valley. Alternately, there is an excellent Region 2 version available from Europe. Start clicking if you have a region-free DVD player. Although Sunrise was a critical success upon release, it was not a financial one. Over the years, however, its reputation has grown and it is now considered one of the best examples of the fluidity and expressionism of the silent era. Upon the subsequent advent of sound technology, the camera had to be locked in a sound-proof booth. It would be quite some time before technology advanced enough to allow camera movement to become as central to film again.
Up Next in the Film Canon: A tabula rasa for religious allegory.