Archive for November, 2011

Sunrise (1927)

November 27, 2011

“Sunrise” is one of the last silent films made by the great German Expressionist F.W. Murnau. It is a crowning achievement from the short silent era, a truly remarkable film that is so fluent in its story-telling technique that it stays effective even today. Having viewed it again with some younger audiences, I realized how effective this film connects the viewers emotionally still today. It truly moved my audiences who couldn’t have been older than 18.

The story is really simple. A down to earth farmer (George O’Brien) is having an affair with a city girl (Margaret Livingston), who persuades him to sell his farm, drown his wife (Janet Gaynor) and move to the city with her. He takes her advice and plots the murder of his innocent wife (not without some serious internalization). At the critical moment, the direction takes a U-turn and the rest is the most touching story I have ever watched on screen. It moves me without any spoken words can describe.

I don’t believe silent film is a better medium than talkie, the whole discussion is irrelevant anyway. With the lack of spoken dialogues, the director is forced to work out the impossible to tell a story, often involving a lot of plot details, solely by image composition, symbolism, editing, cue music. The last thing an esteemed silent film director would ever use to tell a story was the title card. F.W. Murnau was proud that he minimized the title cards whenever he could. In fact, he mastered his technique that in “The Last Laugh” he only used one title card. There are only a few short title cards in “Sunrise”, the story is told by a combination of techniques that title card is not neccessary.

Take for example during the scene by the lake, the city girl asks the farmer to move to the city, looking at the lake and with their backs facing us. Murnau double exposed a montage of the jazz-age urban life over the lake, and then fully fading in the cityscape before fading back to the lake scene.

Take for another example right after the lake scene, the farmer is back home, his wife is sweeping the floor as he struggles to make a decision on the bed. A ghostly image of the city girl is double exposed so that it appears as though she is leaning on him, hugging him, seducing him. All his internal struggle is told through images. In the modern days, we would hear voiceover of what the character should be thinking at that point.

There are also many subtle innovative techniques that would be too difficult to be accomplished at that time. A simple tracking shot would be very difficult with the bulky cameras available then. We found tracking shots in this film that would keep many film analysts busy for a while.

All these would not be relevant though without the actors. I still see overacting here and there common in the period, but I find the key performances more naturalistic, subtle and emotionally engaging than most of the performances coming from the silent era. The church scene where George O’Brien cries is melodramic, but it’s melodrama at its best.

I urge everyone who is interested in silent films to start with “Sunrise”. You will find a cinematic world where emotions are not spoken, but felt.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” is directed by F.W. Murnau, starring George O’Brien, Margaret Livingston, Janet Gaynor.

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