Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau, 1927)
1927 is the year wherein great filmmakers made landmark films: Fritz Lang released Metropolis, Buster Keaton made his masterpiece entitled The General, Cecille B. deMille finished his opulent Christ film King of Kings, Alfred Hitchcock made his third feature and the first that was clearly Hitchcockian The Lodger, Sergei Eisenstein released October, and the epic biopic Napoléon by Abel Gance was unleashed to excited audiences. 1927 also saw the release of F. W. Murnau's first American feature. Although Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans isn't Murnau's best film (Murnau is after all the director of such masterpieces like Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926)), it has a rightful place in history and deserves the reverence and level of importance that is afforded it.
The film can arguably be seen as one of the peaks of the silent film era (I decline to acknowledge it as the single peak as the other 1927 silent features were groundbreaking too); Murnau has mastered his craft and floods the film with perfected style and finesse. Just observe the film's first scene: an illustrated title fades into an accurate real version of a train (a model) about to leave in the foreground while in the background is a view of the busy city with another train rushing past in the far end. That scene is followed by other scenes using superimpositions, crane shots, and other visual techniques (all largely due to the unmeasurable talents of cinematographers Karl Struss and Charles Rosher).
Also observe this obvious example of the film's many outstanding sequences. The Man (George O'Brien) traverses into the marsh --- Murnau's camera, in probably the longest single take in a silent film, tracks down the steps of the man; changing roles from the audience's point of view to the man's point of view, the camera captures the Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston) alone being lit by the solitary light source, a perfectly circular moon. The Man and his lover meet; Murnau cuts to the Man's wife (Janet Gaynor) nursing her son, then cuts back to the man and his lover exchanging torrid kisses in sinful abandon. The Woman From the City suggests the plan of drowning the wife to free the man for their escape to the city; she tempts him with the city's lights, flash, and sounds --- all superimposed with astounding accuracy; we also get to hear sound in sync with what's happening onscreen over the delirious original musical score composed for the film.
Above the technical mastery is the syrupy sensitivity that the film unabashedly inflicts on us. It tells of a tale that is claimed to be universal, of a man lured into a murderous affair by a vacationing woman of the world only to be redeemed into marital fidelity, that will be tested by the most cinematic of deus ex machina's. It pits rural simplicity against the evils of urban sophistication, and sacramental righteousness against lustful temptation. Characters are simplified and removed of their individualistic nature, as opposed to the novel written by Hermann Sudermann where the film was based from. Straightforward and overly simple, the plot has the semblance of a parable; merely expanded to show off the sophistications of Murnau's filmmaking.
The film can be seen as a turning point in silent cinema. Along with the technical advances of Gance, the opulence of deMille, and other contributions of several filmmakers around the world, silent cinema could've pushed the envelope and evolved the medium. Murnau's Last Laugh told a story entirely without using intertitles; I believe Sunrise can also do without the intertitles (although the experimentations as to how intertitles are use not only to forward the plot but also to enunciate emotions --- the opening title, the animated 'drowning' intertitle). The innovations were piling up. Those were exciting times.
1927 had one other film that changed everything, and metaphorically stopped the evolution of silent cinema. That film is Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer, the first sound film. Silent films became the thing of the past, as talk, sound, and prolonged dialogues were introduced into cinema. The dreamlike, smoky quality that made simplistic tales like Sunrise into cinematic masterpieces were replaced by the value of easy gratification and aural education. Imagination, exaggeration, and a certain feel of artistry were given up. In an alter-universe wherein The Jazz Singer never happened, I imagine cinema to be a lot less like ours today; more like experiences rather than events.
This post is my contribution to goatdogblog: The 1927 Blog-A-Thon.