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February 12, 2012

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Director: F.W. Murnau
Actors: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

Synopsis: Country couple (George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor) reconfigure their relationship, after a dangerous city woman tries to come between them.

Review: With all the hype (and quite frankly, much of it is just commercial self-promotion) surrounding Michel Hazanavicius’s silent movie homage, The Artist, it feels apt to go back to one of the great monuments of the silent era, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, to see why many still believe the late silent period to be the closest cinema ever got to attaining the status of an artform.

One of the most common misgivings about silent cinema is that mere chronology alone dictates it must be the most primitive juncture in the evolution of film. For sure, cinema has certainly advanced technologically since the late 1920s – the mastery over sound and colour, improvement in cameras, digitalisation – but that command over the representation of ‘reality’ doesn’t necessarily compensate for the lack of a visual purity and poetry that early cinema provided. Sunrise is a prime example of this – an astonishing visual feast – with Murnau playing with the simple elements of light and shade on celluloid to make one of film’s most ravishing expositions of cinematography (especially pronounced in the evocative opening sequences where ‘darkness’ comes to the country when George O’Brien’s husband plots to kill his wife). Murnau also makes fantastic use of dissolves and superimpositions, and even the seemingly utilitarian silent movie trope of intertitles is used imaginatively to further the narrative – from the subtle repetition of intertitles to book-end significant sequences and imprint a given theme, to the vampish use of a sinking intertitle to reflect the husband’s plan to send his wife to a watery grave.

Sunrise also rebukes The Artist peddling the commonly-held myth that silent movie acting was uniformly broad and arch, replete with the comedic/melodramatic style familiar from the works of Chaplin. Of course, without sound, acting often needed to be ‘larger’ and necessarily more demonstrative, but some of the work from George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor in Sunrise is as ‘real’ and genuinely emotional as anything from today’s more contemporary form of naturalistic film acting.

Sunrise is also a fascinating document on modernity. Its classical depiction of country versus city may seem quaint and even passé now, but this was made in the great period of modernity that was the Roaring Twenties. More and more Americans were relocating to big metropolitan areas, as western societies continued to transition from agrarian societies to predominantly industrial and commercial ones. Not only is the city the locus for work, but the lure of the attractions and advancements of these cities is a major part of the story of Sunrise. If anything, Sunrise can be read as a parable on modernity with its love-triangle of George O’Brien’s farmer being torn between his tender, rural wife (Janet Gaynor) and a visiting, dangerous city girl (Margaret Livingston). When Gaynor flees to the city and O’Brien follows her, their relationship dilemmas are mirrored by the wonders and dangers of the cities – as initially O’Brien nearly gets comically run over by the automobiles he’s evidently never encountered before, but after their reconciliation, the happy couple cleverly fade through the traffic to symbolise their newfound happiness. And that expressiveness highlights the genius of Murnau and silent cinema as a whole – how without the need to play his story out in a thoroughly realised reality, Murnau can use illusions and the poetry of his magical medium to communicate the themes of his story that much more evocatively. (February 2012)

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