Monday, March 12, 2012

Just watched...

...F.W. Murnau's classic silent film "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans."

German director F.W. Murnau is most remembered for his 1922 silent horror classic “Nosferatu.” But he is probably best remembered for his film “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” from 1927.

A proponent of Expressionist cinema in Germany, Murnau was invited by William Fox of Fox Film Corporation (now 20th Century-Fox) to make an Expressionist film in Hollywood. Expressionist film was a style of film that used art direction and symbolism to express abstract ideas and inner psychological states of characters. It seemed to be a questionable venture, marrying a European, avant-garde film style with the more simple and commercial Hollywood style. But Murnau dove in and created one of the most highly regarded films of all time.

Adapted by Carl Mayer from the Hermann Sudermann short story “Der Reise nach Tilsit” (“A Trip To Tilsit”), “Sunrise” was made at the end of the silent film era when talkies were being introduced. Although it has no true synced sound, the film features a Fox Movietone sound track (the technology was bought the previous year by Fox Studios), utilizing music, sound effects and a few unsynchronized words. Along with cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, Murnau created a film that was groundbreaking in many ways. He built sets, both interior and exterior, that used forced perspective to created depth; the buildings in a city street scene get smaller the farther back they go and Murnau used regular extras in the foreground but used midgets in the background to reinforce the illusion. Some shots use cleverly placed miniatures in the foreground to look like large objects. Interior sets feature raked floors and doors and windows cut at an extreme angle to, again, create depth. Impressive tracking shots, even by today’s standards, abound in this film and influenced many filmmakers for genrations to come (Orson Welles' breathtaking tracking shot at the opening of "A Touch Of Evil" springs to mind). For example, we follow a character through a moonlit marsh at night but the camera suddenly breaks away and takes a detour, gliding and floating around trees and grass, shifting our perspective of the one we were following, only to catch up to him moments later. Another lovely tracking shot is achieved by looking down on a boat as it is being rowed across a lake. Other effects such as unusual angles, pans, superimpositions, montages, and multiple exposures are used to good effect. Some scenes are lit unexpectedly, some are awash in a glorious dewy patina, others are crisp and clear. The end result is a visual poem, a well-defined and fully realized work of art that was surely ahead of its time. It was so ahead of its time that the movie-going public did not know what to make of it. Indeed, it was a commercial failure with audiences preferring instead to flock to hear Al Jolson sing “My Mammy” in “The Jazz Singer.”

The story itself is simple enough. A Man and his Wife (never named) live on an island that hosts visiting tourists from a nearby city for the summer. But one tourist, The Woman From The City lingers after the others have left. She and The Man begin an affair. The Woman From The City suggests to The Man that he come to the city to be with her after drowning his wife, making it look like an accident. The Man is initially upset at the idea but succumbs to The Woman From The City’s spell. Obediently, the Man takes his wife out on the lake, intending to drown her. To her horror, The Wife understands what is happening, but The Man cannot go through with it. He rows them to the other shore where she runs from him. He catches up to her as she boards a trolley car headed for the city. They both ride together, the knowledge of what he was planning to do weighing on them both. Once in the city, he begs for her forgiveness and breaks down crying. She forgives him and they spend the rest of the film rekindling their love, while they have many adventures in the city. But that night, as The Man rows his wife back to the island, a storm rises and threatens to capsize the boat. This simple story is a fable, almost a parable, about love, forgiveness, and fate.

As one would guess, the acting in this film is typical of silent films: broad, overacted, and indicating. But interestingly, there are glimmers here and there of a more realistic and complex acting style, one that would eventually take over the cinema (and theater as well), especially from George O'Brien who played The Man. Janet Gaynor as The Wife is fine, and Margaret Livingston does a good job of portraying the on-the-edge hysteria of The Woman From The City.

At the very first Academy Awards ceremony ever held, “Sunrise” took several honors: Best Film, Unique and Artistic Production (the first and last time this category was used); Janet Gaynor (The Wife) won for Best Actress; Charles Rosher and Karl Struss won for Best Cinematography; and Rochus Gliese won for Best Art Direction. In 1989, the United States Library of Congress selected it to be included in the National Film Registry. To be included, a film must be deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." In a 2002 critics' poll for the British Film Institute, "Sunrise" was named the seventh-best film in the history of motion pictures. And in 2007, the film was #82 on the 10th anniversary update of the American Film Institute's “100 Years... 100 Movies list of great films” list.

Recommend? For film buffs and historians, it is a must see.

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