• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:September 6, 2020

Sunrise: The Lure of the City

sunriseI’m currently reading ”The Speed of Sound”, Scott Eyman’s account of how sound revolutionized moviemaking in Hollywood in the late 1920s, which is why I’m also getting a bit curious about some of the films mentioned in that book. One of them is obviously a huge classic. I’m happy to have finally seen Sunrise, the first movie F.W. Murnau made after coming to Hollywood. This was at a time when silent cinema had found its ultimate expression, and Murnau really was a master of the craft. But this film also shows how sound was becoming inevitable.

Falling madly in love with a farmer
We are introduced to archetypes more than characters of flesh and blood. They are not named, but simply known as ”The Man” (George O’Brien), ”The Wife” (Janet Gaynor) and ”The Woman from the City” (Margaret Livingston). When we meet them, we learn that the latter has spent some time in the countryside near a lake. She has met a man, a farmer, and they have fallen madly in love, even though he’s married and the father of a small child.

One late night, when the man has sneaked off to meet the woman, he’s persuaded to start a new life with her in the city. But he needs to sell the farm and get rid of his wife. The woman talks the man into a murder scheme…

First film with an optical soundtrack
William Fox had a lot at stake with Sunrise. Not only did he give his eccentric German import, Murnau, much leeway during the production of the opulent film, but he had also invested in a fancy new sound system called Movietone, one of several competing systems at the time. Sunrise became the first film to have an optical soundtrack, featuring a few sound effects and a music score written by Hugo Riesenfeld. Not that the movie really needed it. Murnau didn’t like title cards and made sure that as few as possible were used in Sunrise, having become such a first-rate filmmaker that he knew how to propel his story forward and create emotions without banal dialogue.

Still, after the sensational release of The Jazz Singer the same year, it quickly became commercially necessary to include some kind of sound effects to satisfy audiences. There are many examples of films from this era where it was clumsily done, but the effects are natural here. The film has to be seen as a symbolic fantasy, a poem, or as the full title suggests, a ”song”, about the power of love and the darkest temptations of sexuality. It is impossible to take the story of how a ”country boy” is tempted by a woman from the city, tries to murder his wife and then charmingly wins her trust back seriously. 90 years later, it hasn’t become easier. But if one is able to swallow how utterly corny this is, Sunrise is oddly moving near the end as we’ve actually come to root for the man who came close to murder, and his poor wife. That’s when it’s easier to accept the film’s romantic atmosphere, and Murnau brings the picture to a close in a powerful way; there are strong emotions at work here.

He has two excellent cinematographers by his side. Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, who frequently use forced perspective, as in Murnau’s earlier German films, to create the illusion of grandeur and depth. The scenes in the city, where the man and the wife go after the failed murder attempt on the lake, are designed (in collaboration with Rochus Gliese’s outstanding art direction, especially at the funfair) in a warped way that makes us view the city as a noisy, overwhelming place where everything can happen and nothing is as safe and reliable as the countryside.

Truly cinema as art. Simple and silly on paper, a unique visual experience after Murnau’s done with it.

Sunrise 1927-U.S. Silent. 94 min. B/W. Produced by William Fox. Directed by F.W. Murnau. Screenplay: Carl Mayer. Short Story: Hermann Sudermann (”The Excursion to Tilsit”). Cinematography: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss. Music: Hugo Riesenfeld. Art Direction: Rochus Gliese. Cast: George O’Brien (The Man), Janet Gaynor (The Wife), Margaret Livingston (The Woman from the City), Bodil Rosing, J. Farrell MacDonald.

Trivia: Full title onscreen: Sunrise – A Song of Two Humans. Remade in Germany as The Journey to Tilsit (1939).

Oscars: Best Picture (Unique and Artistic Production; first and only time the award was presented), Actress (Gaynor), Cinematography.

Last word: “I worked with a wide-focus lens of 35 to 55 mm for the scenes in the big café. All the sets had floors that sloped slightly upwards as they receded, and the ceilings had artificial perspectives; the bulbs hanging from them were bigger in the foreground than in the background. We even had dwarfs, men and women, on the terrace. Of course all this produced an amazing sense of depth.” (Rosher, “F.W. Murnau”)



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    One of the best film articles of all-time is the one written by Dorothy B. Jones for the 1955 Spring issue of Hollywood Quarterly of Film titled:
    SUNRISE: A MURNAU MASTERPIECE. If your really interested in what Murnau was hoping (and did) to achieve then this is worth looking up.

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