Sunrise

sunrise

1927

Directed by F.W. Murnau – Written by Carl Mayer and Herman Sudermann

Starring: Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien and Margaret Livinston

For trivia buffs, the first film to win best picture at the Oscars was ‘Wings’ (Wellman, 1927) when there was actually two awards. Best Production went to ‘Wings’ but this film won Unique and Artistic Production, the better sounding award for sure. Watching this you can see why. With Murnau disliking title cards they are used less and less as the film progresses relying instead on the two lead actors; Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien, to tell the story. Even when the cards are used it is not in the traditional way, for instance what normally happens is the card appears, the audience read and then we are shown what they are talking about such as how the young couple used to be or what is happening to their farm now. One particular instance the word ‘drowned’ is used and the words seem to run down the screen as though they are sinking in water.

The story of Sunrise is incredibly simple, a wife and husband live on a farm happily with a child but the man is tempted away by the woman from the city. While this doesn’t sound like a great deal of a story it is one that is humane and at the same time melodramatic. In fact the main part of the plot is dealt within the first half hour meaning the rest of the film is built on the couple’s reaction from the beginning. We are with them for the entire film and with them we explore emotions ranging from utter guilt and despair to laughter and happiness. The subtitle of the film; A Song Of Two Humans, is an open reference to the exploration of very human emotions and the whole pallet that is explored throughout.

While this came out shortly after the first sound film; The Jazz Singer (Crosland, 1927), the use of the soundtrack is quite a revelation as it immerses the audience further into film by incorporating the background noise into the orchestration. Church bells are heard while at the church or if there is one in the distance quieter ones are heard, car horns and brakes screeching in the busy city streets and at a fair/circus crowds of people, elephants even pigs become a part of the noise. It is the closest to a sound film that silent cinema ever came without actually breaking that boundary of speech and dialogue.

The most striking aspect however is the cinematography. Taking influence in German expressionism (Murnau and the two cinematographers are from Germany) there is inventive use of camera movement as well as incredible cross-fades that push further boundaries of silent cinema which is fairly restrictive due to the size of equipment as well as what was available. The worlds are immersive and wonderfully shot from the quiet beauty of the rural to the pulsating and intoxicating life of the city.

The performances of the two leads are incredible as the range explored without words is a thing of beauty; everything is conveyed through body language and close ups the way you expect with no room for doubt over what each character is feeling at that time.

Silent cinema was pushed to its boundaries with this film and especially by Murnau. An artistic piece of work that really calls for repeat viewings.

10/10

– Jack Tapley

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