Saturday, March 24, 2007

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

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.


Damian Arlyn said...

Great post. I Sunrise. I actually considered writing abou it for the blog-a-thon but ultimately decided not to. Now, of course, I'm glad I didn't as I'd hate to be compared with your post.

My first viewing of Sunrise was completely by accident. A friend had just started watching it in the living room of my co-ed in college when I was walking by. I never intended to sit through the whole thing I just found myself getting emotionally "sucked in" to the story and the characters. Granted, the situations and thier outcomes are all rather melodramatic, but there was something about the beauty of its simplicity (not to mention its mages) and the conviction of its performances that I found very moving. Like you, I don't know that I'm prepared to say it's Murnau's greatest film, but it is my personal favorite of his, since I find myself I responding to it a whole lot more than "masterpieces" like Nosferatu. Sometimes there are films that you can "admire" more than you can love.

Damian Arlyn said...

Oops. I meant for that second sentence to say "I love Sunrise." There are actually a number of spelling errors in that response. How embarassing. I thought I was clicking "preview," but I guess I was really clicking "Publish." Oh well.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Damian,

I was actually planning on doing a piece on this, Hitchcock's The Lodger, or deMille's King of Kings. However, I didn't have any passable copy of the Hitchcock, and deMille's film is just too long, with too many versions, thus too many facets to talk about, and I only have so little time. The logical choice is Murnau --- and it's quite a thrilling experience.

Oggs Cruz said...

And I forgot to mention, embarrassing as it may seem, that I got so affected when the wife ran away from the husband in fear, and the husband kept on pursuing the wife for forgiveness. Those sequences up to the prolonged dance hall and pig scene were so powerfully raw, that I can't help but shed a few tears...

The Siren said...

Well done. I love Sunrise too, so much I wasn't sure I felt up to the task of blogging about it. Glad I didn't, because this is a great job. I had no idea it was based on a novel by Herman Sudermann; so was the movie I blogged about for this blog-a-thon, Flesh and the Devil.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks campaspe (or should I call you Siren),

I'm really envious since you guys were able to write about something other than the usual suspects (Sunrise, Wings, etc.). My main problem is that there is little to no availability of films from the silent era in my impoverished tropical nation (heck, we can't even afford to archive our films properly --- and the world is losing great films yearly for neglecting my nation's cinema). I wanted to write a Filipino silent film but there is none available or existing in watchable form. I'd love to watch each and every one of the films (especially the one you wrote about, which is so seductively described by you) in the blog-a-thon, but alas, I'll have to wait.

Adrian Mendizabal said...

It is still one of the most unforgettable films i have ever watched.