F. W. Murnau (1888-1931) was one of the greatest film makers of the Silent Era. Born in the province of Westphalia, Germany, he made his most famous movie, Nosferatu, in 1922. Hollywood soon beckoned, and he emigrated to America in 1926. He made Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans in 1927.
Much of the planning for Sunrise was done in Germany before Murnau came to Hollywood. The novella from which it was taken was German, the film script was written in Germany, and the sets were designed there. It may have been the first German-American movie.
The film won several Oscars and it’s easy to see why. Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien are the stars, and the silent format forces them to convey emotions through gesture and looks, movement and essential pauses. Their unique physicality as they move from scene to scene takes the place of vocal inflection, tone and script. They move the story along with great skill and effect, but they do not act alone. Murnau was a master at creating mood through his amazing set designs, the angles filling his interiors, the expressionistic distortions of distance and perspective, and lighting. Chiaroscuro is especially important in the early scenes down by the water, as O’Brien walks toward his waiting lover. Moonlight and reflections on the waves. The farm on the edge of that water. The shots of the shore. The perspective created when we see the lovers embrace.
The plot is simple. Murnau doesn’t even name his characters. They are the Man (O’Brien), the Wife (Gaynor), the Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston), the Maid (Bodil Rosing) and so on. The story is essentially one of temptation, adultery, murder and redemption, with several twists thrown into the mix. City and country are juxtaposed. Peasant and city dwellers are contrasted. The simplicity of farmland ways and the complexity of the raucous and frenetic city. The dream of the city. The woman from that city wants the farmer to dump his wife and go with her to live under the neon lights, in a place that points, in some ways, to another silent classic, Lang’s Metropolis.
Murnau mixes moods through music as well, as the soundtrack adds menace to the early scenes and spices up the jazzy insanity of the big city soon after. Traffic, hustle and bustle, scenes of dancing, brass and concert bands flow into one another to create the new world for Gaynor and O’Brien. They ride an emotional roller coaster that keeps pace with that city, and Murnau heightens those changes through artistic distortion and special effects. He used every technical innovation available to him at the time.
The silent picture format, in this case, adds emotional depth, and heightens our participation in the flow of the film . . .
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The quality of the DVD remix is very good. It looks better than this “official trailor”. You really don’t get the effect of bleached out light with the DVD. It’s a remarkable film and has earned a chorus of accolades across the decades. The word “classic” is sometimes handed out too quickly, but Sunrise easily deserves the label.