Wednesday, 25 July 2012


"We're going for a trip across the water, I may not be back for quite some time"

Sunrise or sometimes known by its full title Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a multi Oscar winning film from F. W. Murnau, one of the most famed Directors of the silent era. Mixing Murnau’s traditional German Expressionism with Hollywood techniques the film stars George O’Brian as a rural farmer who begins an elicit affair with a glamorous and sophisticated Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). The City Woman persuades the Farmer that he’d be better off with her in the city and suggests that he drowns his Wife (Janet Gaynor) and makes it look like an accident. Following a last minute change of heart The Man tries to gain his wife’s forgiveness as she herself flees to the city with him in tow.

I’d never heard of this film until a couple of weeks ago when I was searching for Silent Films that I could watch for Eternity of Dream’s Speechless Blogathon. I searched the IMDb Top 250 and found that this was one of the few silent films I hadn’t seen. And boy am I glad I found it. It is not surprising that Sunrise remains so highly regarded today as it is a truly magnificent film.

The film is much stylised and features some advanced film making techniques. Unlike many films of the era there are few intertitle screens with possibly only ten or twelve during the entire 95 minutes. The images and acting do the talking and Murnau calls upon some interesting techniques to create a visually stunning film. He uses forced perspective on a number of occasions, sometimes in tandem with double exposure to create some quite surreal but beautiful images. The double exposure is something that is prevalent throughout and is often used to create the feeling of several emotions at once, such as when The Man is torn as to whether or not to kill his wife. The overlaying also creates a sense of hustle and bustle when the central characters first reach the city. In keeping with Murnau’s German Expressionist past there are several scenes which have an almost fairytale like quality including one early on in which The Woman from the City enters a room to find a family eating breakfast. The table they’re sat at appears to be at about 30 degrees off horizontal while furniture at the other end of the room is about 30 degrees off in the other direction. This creates a feeling of being sucked into the room and is also very beautiful.

Something else of interest is the use of long tracking shots. The film actually features what was at the time the longest tracking shot in history at over four minutes and there are several protracted moving shots throughout. Another thing I didn’t expect to see was the use of traveling matte (an early form of bluescreen). This was used during a scene in which the couple are walking through traffic and was added to with real cars and bicycles moving between the characters and camera. While it is obviously bluescreen it looked as good if not better than examples I’ve seen from the 1980s.

The score, so important for a ‘silent’ movie, is absolutely superb, combining periods of thrilling, dramatic and romantic music as the mood changes. The music is a joy to listen to and at times incorporates music and sound effects from the characters surroundings such as the noise of a carnival and shouts from angry motorists. While technically a silent film, there are the odd moments of human speech but these are all in the form of stock effects like those mentioned above. The film was released just two weeks before the first ‘talkie’ The Jazz Singer and as a result was at the very end of the silent era.

The plot can be easily dissected into three distinct acts. The opening act is heavy and sombre as The Man is racked with guilt and indecision. The middle third is quite light and frothy in comparison and even contains a scene in which The Man chases a drunken pig. It is sometimes funny and always frivolous and entertaining. The final act takes a sad turn and brings the plot round full circle. The story itself feels quite original and is gripping from start to finish. To me the plot could also been seen as a warning against Urbanisation, something that was creating problems for both town and country in the late 1920s. Symbolically the film could be viewed as a tempting city influence, coming to the countryside and upsetting the balance of things. While this could be the case, it may be that I’m reading too much into it.

The acting is great. Once again I’m surprised just how great because as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, although I watch a lot of silent film, I tend to stick to comedy for which acting is not a forte. Janet Gaynor won the first ever Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 1929 although at the time the award was given for cumulative work and included her performances in Seventh Heaven and Street Angel. Although I think that she was very good, for me the real standout performance was George O’Brian who felt incredibly natural in the role of The Man. As well as Gaynor’s Oscar the film also won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Unique and Artistic Production (a category only used that one time and was the equivalent of Best Picture). Both awards are highly justified in my view.

Overall Sunrise is a highly enjoyable and technically brilliant film which combines some of the best aspects of German Expressionism and early Golden Age Hollywood to form a thrilling and beautiful piece of work which is worth seeking out if ever you get the chance.           


1 comment:

  1. Wow, this movie looks really intense. Plus, the technical aspects appear really modern and futuristic, I would love to see this film when I get the chance.