Archive for the ‘German Expressionism’ Category

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.

Advertisements

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

August 21, 2011

Most viewers today will immediately associate “The Man Who Laughs” to The Joker the most notorious fictional villain of our time. That’s about the only legacy this forgotten silent movie has left today. That fixated grin is the only linkage to the joker, and in fact the movie has much more to offer still today.

Directed by Paul Leni and released in 1928, “The Man Who Laughs” is the last breed of its kind before we abandoned story-telling to visual and sound. Watching this film, you will have this constant bittersweet feeling that the late master is mastering the art to the limit within the limitation of the medium. The production is still a highly watchable and at time entertaining piece of movie making, beside its historical value. Leni even experimented with recorded sounds, such as the crowd’s noise and ambient sound of the parade.

Adapted from a novel of the same title written by Victor Hugo in 1869, the story starts with an English nobleman who has offends King James II, he is sentenced to death in the iron maiden, his son Gwynplaine is sentenced to be mutated and forever wearing a large grin on his face with the help of a surgeon called Dr. Hardquannone. Gwynplaine meets Dea a baby girl he finds in the midst of a snow storm, chances upon a good hearted showman called Ursus. Together the trio survives the hardship and makes a living out of the circus business with the famous gig of Gwynplaine the joker, who reluctantly displays his horrifying grin to put bread on the table.

Roger Ebert wrote in his 2004 review that “Movie villains smile so compulsively because it creates a creepy disconnect between their mouth and their eyes. Imagine, however, a good man, condemned to smile widely for an entire lifetime.” The horror of this movie, unlike the title otherwise suggests, is not the horror commanded by the laughing man, but instead the horror that is enforced upon him. The film is essentially a bittersweet melodrama that is told in the best of the german expressionist style, that casts a strong contrast between the good hearted Gwynplaine and the horrific chain of events around him, with unseen horror lurking in the darkest of the shadow.

Conrad Veidt shines as Gwynplaine. He also played in other famous german expressionist silent movies such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He had to wear a monstrous denture that keeps his grin, in doing so, limits his mouth movement. The whole thing works because first it’s a silent movie anyway and the story telling relies on Conrad’s facial expression rather than words, and second Conrad’s acting with the eyes conveys unspeakable emotions that at time make his character more sympathetic than if we could hear him speaking.

I highly recommend this movie if you have 2 free hours over the weekend and would like to revisit the art of the silent movie. Movie making has gone from the story-telling, that works much like a novel, to a spectacle of sometimes grotesque visual and busy soundtrack. Not that silent movie making is in any way superior than the talkies, but if you want a good old analogue entertainment in which the creators must work much harder on the craftsmanship with wild imagination and creativity to surpass the limitation of silence, pick this up via the internet or watch below.


The Laughing Man” is directed by Paul Leni adapted by J. Grubb Alexander from a novel of the same name written by Victor Hugo.