Thursday, May 3, 2012

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau. 1927)

"This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time"

The story being told in the all time great Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is so thick with fable that the meaning can easily be lost on an audience. I will be honest, I do not really care much for the story. It is all too simplistic and lacks the development that a movie needs to make me care about the characters. All in all it is a story about love overpowering lust. The problem is that everything happens so quickly and without consequence that believing the story is nearly impossible. Perhaps that is why Sunrise was not a box office success; though I have a feeling "talkies" had more of an impact in that department.

The aforementioned story follows three primary characters: the Man, the Wife and the Woman from the City. Remaining unnamed is supposed to give them a sense of the "every-person", but the lack of conventional character definition leaves much to be desired. The Man is having an affair with the Woman who convinces him to drown his wife in a lake so he can move to the city and be with her. The Man timidly agrees, but he retreats after seeing the fear on his wife's face at the pentacle moment. It took attempted murder to convince this man that he actually loves his wife?! Dude...

Of course, as soon as she gets back on shore she runs away from the Man. I mean, he tried to kill her for crying out loud. But apparently all it takes is a little persistence because he eventually - and through no convincing actions - is able to get his wife to love him again. After a long day of attempted murder and rekindled feelings, the couple's boat is overturned and the Wife is thrown overboard, presumably dead. The Man, feeling the intense irony of the situation, refuses to give up hope. The Woman tries to convince him to let his wife die, but he....strangles her....nice guy, huh? He finds his wife. Happy ending.

Like I said, it all seems too simple to work. Sunrise fully lives in an unrealistic fable. But, rightfully so, it is not the story that has made Sunrise a famous film. Rather, it was the visionary work of the famous German expressionist F.W. Murnau and his cinematographer Karl Struss. In the early days of silent filmmaking cameras were bulky and difficult to move from one place to another. The camera itself was manually cranked by the operator which limited movement to little more than still shots. At most, a camera could be hitched to rails and moved horizontally to follow scenes, but an actual overhead shot or "flying" camera was practically nonexistent. 

Murnau was already known in nerd circles for his work in the enormously influential Nosferatu, so when William Fox wanted something big for his new studio there was no better directorial choice. Struss and Murnau worked diligently to create one of the greatest technical achievements in the silent film era and it can be seen in the flowing area shots of the lake and city. Sunrise was also one of the first films (the first according to some sources) to directly record the score along with the action. It is said that the movie was made in the days where silent films had reached perfection, and the duel recording that was the precursor to recording voices served the film by synching the music flawlessly with the action.

It has been said a million times before, but Murnau truly was one of the greatest directors in the silent era. His The Last Laugh used only actions to tell a dramatic story and Nosferatu is one of the most treasured horror films ever made. Sunrise is something different entirely. The film stands as more of a technical achievement rather than an interesting movie. The Academy Awards seemed to agree when they split the first ever Best Picture award into two by giving Wings (1928) the award for Best Overall Production with Sunrise receiving  Best Unique and Artistic Production. It is an incredibly important movie in regards to cinematography and silent filmmaking. And though the story lacks depth, the production is worth the time spent watching....

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans: B+



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