Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Movies peaked early. This is still about as good as they’re ever gonna get — the raw emotional punch of it is just too direct and unfettered to be really improved on. After making a string of German expressionist silent classics (Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Faust), maverick director F.W. Murnau came to the U.S. to work for the studio that would later become 20th Century Fox. There, he was given something close to free reign and crafted a film that was thoroughly unique in 1927 and remains so today. Murnau is able to fuse his visual prowess with the infinite possibilities of Hollywood filmmaking. It’s an early example of candy-store cinema, the great filmmaking artist given the power to do whatever he wants, for the first and perhaps only time in his life.

Sunrise, subtitled A Song of Two Humans, is a film of firepower and vitality, the movies at their highest level, as a purely visual form of storytelling. The first third of the film is akin to the first two chapters of Great Expectations: as perfect and fully resonant as its art form can get. Watching this movie today you learn a lot about what makes something survive for this long: the emotions transcend the eighty-six years sitting between us and the filmmakers. George O’Brien ignores his wife and child in favor of a voluptuous city girl who blows him in the marshes at night. Ready to escape from his humdrum life, he decides to kill his wife and run off… and that’s just the start. Don’t be the person who labels this a “simple” story; its violence is too troubling, its subtle critiques of masculinity too potent, its circular narrative too knowing, universal though it might be. (It’s pretty clear by the third time through that all three times O’Brien nearly kills or threatens to kill someone, he’s fighting against parts of himself, right?)

What unfolds is not a variation on Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, though comparisons are inevitable for obvious reasons, but a stunningly realized story of redemption between two people; the feelings of O’Brien and Juliet Gaynor (as the wife) are so raw and so naked, nothing holding their torment and triumph back from the screen, that their expressions alone can induce an outpouring. Gaynor’s weeping after she realizes her husband has just attempted to murder her is as real and heartbreaking as anything I’ve ever seen in a movie. The transitions that follow require our full investment in the two of them to retain credibility; though he honestly regrets it — he couldn’t even come close to going through with it — and his pleading for her understanding is aching, universal, familiar, her acceptance and turnaround are something we cannot appreciate on paper, can only understand by seeing the film and seeing Gaynor’s performance… and seeing how, like Frank Borzage, Murnau has beautifully built these characters to sustain and sell and enchant us with their rekindled adoration of one another. The vignettes that come afterward and make up the bulk of the film are as apt a chronicle as has been made — in any form — of falling back into love. It’s a beautiful, honest, desperately fragile transformation to witness. I’d be amazed if any long-running couple can watch this and not be moved, even if they’ve never had anything like these troubles.

Sunrise runs around ninety minutes, and contains in that time only about two dozen title cards, the vast majority of which are in the first ten minutes of the picture. You don’t need words, just faces. Murnau called his technique of dramatic angles “photographed thought.” Silent films were a fully developed higher art of their own, and movies like this mark their absolute peak in the country that enjoyed their highest level of achievement. It’s debatable whether Hollywood cinema is the best in the world after the ’50s, some say it wasn’t in the ’30s and ’40s (I disagree), but virtually no one disputes that the American studio system mastered the first wave of the art, which is why immigrants like Murnau, Victor Sjostrom, and Erich von Stroheim hit their zenith on these shores. The machine was equipped for anything, including the top level of artistic mastery. Murnau’s visuals reach unprecedented heights here, scene after scene tapping into emotion over logic with their mild surrealism and wrenching beauty. The lack of sound lends itself to entirely different methods of storytelling and expression. There’s an astonishing scene of the wife crossing the street, in a daze after her world’s been turned upside down, rhymed later with a sequence of the couple, now reunited, moving to the opposite side, hallucinating a world of fire and light around them, oblivious to the cars careening at them from every direction. That is love, better explained than any amount of text or dialogue could ever manage.

That’s precisely the transcendent benefit Sunrise enjoys over every other romance picture ever made. Beyond the fact that everything in it is gorgeous (and that includes the sporadic title cards), it so stunningly, flawlessly captures the privacy, lunacy and fire of love and lust. It has a couple of appropriate siblings in this era of American filmmaking: King Vidor’s The Crowd, one of the only perfect movies ever made, and Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, to name a couple, but no one but Murnau has ever quite gotten in visual terms the falling away of the rest of the world, or the way that the worst and most dreaded crisis is absorbed into the snowball that can, if it’s permitted, become the strongest sort of interpersonal bond. It may take a few repeat viewings of this extraordinarily succinct film to realize it but the tone is note-perfect, as is the hazy sense in which every dumb thing you share becomes huge, and especially that manner whereby one jolt or another periodically reminds us that we live a series of moments and we must embrace this. How astute of the film to show how this man would never have realized it if not for the woman in the marshes looming over him.

It wouldn’t be possible for Sunrise to live up to The Crowd as a piece of linear storytelling; it has no interest in that sort of cumulative impact, even if it does sideswipe us with an extraordinary final act and climax that I will not spoil here, no matter how many other important films I’ve spoiled. What makes Sunrise the most substantial achievement in silent film, perhaps the masterpiece of American cinema in general, is its raw emotional essence which reaches a soulfulness tied directly to fickle human nature, using artistic expressionism to articulate the things movies are best at documenting; in so little time, it gets twice as much in about life (not at this specific or any other specific time, but life universally) during an hour and a half than most epic-length films of any period even approach. After watching Singin’ in the Rain for the first time in July of 2006, in a state of lovelorn depression myself, I wrote the following:

“Do you remember Mrs. Phelps, shaken to the core by ‘Dover Beach’ in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? After Montag reads the poem aloud, she sobs, repeating ‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’ and in the corresponding scene in the film, adding ‘I can’t bear to know those feelings. I’d forgotten all about those things.’ The display of humanity and decency in Singin’ in the Rain has a similar effect; the person who has lost the ability to be moved and overjoyed might get it back after seeing this film. [It is] a statement of how you may not need love so much as you need to know it exists, to experience it in some secondhand way, specifically in the movies. Because Singin’ in the Rain does evoke those feelings in the audience, [and] while you watch and revel in the overwhelming sense of self-sacrifice exhibited by the unforgettable characters in this film, you feel as if you know them.”

I might have written the same thing for this picture, when it first entranced me a year later. Once again, Sunrise represents love, loss, and reunion with such warmth and closeness that it moves beyond the screen. Whether it is or isn’t a fantasy is scarcely important; the point is, it exists in the world we want to believe is out there beyond the exit doors. We all want to believe in a world when someone with a face as kind and adoring as Gaynor’s can love us despite all of our errors in judgement and losses of control, or that against all odds the person we lost to the shadow in the marshes will throw their arms around us one more time, will see us with the same eyes that once seemed so permanent. We want to believe in redemption. We want to hope, and we want — so badly it hurts — to love, to be loved, to be understood. For all the time that we sit in a theater (or our couch) with Sunrise, that world we want belongs to us, and if it doesn’t after the curtain goes up, at least we touched it in the movies.

[Originally posted in 2007, with a few sentences now updated.]

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