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Posted on 20 April, 2022

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In 1927, German director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau‘s silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (often shortened to Sunrise) was shown in theaters. It is a romantic drama that follows the story of two farmers and their marriage, which is suddenly thrown into crisis by the arrival of a woman from the city. Although the plot may seem quite simple, the movie deals with much deeper themes. A clear contrast emerges between rural life and the metropolis and, above all, it delves into the decline of human relationships.

Sunrise is an atypical movie for its time, combining German and American cinematography. It is indeed Murnau’s first Hollywood feature movie. In addition, the movie exhibits a coexistence of Expressionism and Realism. A fusion of well-blended elements that resulted in an immortal movie.

Temptation and righteousness

Sunrise tells the story of The Man (George O’Brien) and The Wife (Janet Gaynor) whose quiet married life on the farmhouse is turned upside down by the appearance of The Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston). The charming woman tries to persuade The Man to quit his miserable life and follow her to the big city. Seduced, The Man meditates on getting rid of his virtuous wife by staging her drowning. However, when he is about to commit this extreme act, he stops and changes his mind. Finding themselves in an unfamiliar metropolis, the two have the opportunity to share new experiences and reconcile, rediscovering their feelings. But fate will soon intervene in an unexpected way

Sunrise is part of the genre of melodrama, very popular in the silent film era. Just think of John Brahm‘s Broken Blossoms (1936); Charlie Chaplin‘s A Woman of Paris (1923); or Frank Borzage‘s 7th Heaven (1927). Sunrise takes up the cornerstones of melodrama: a highly emotional story in which a thwarted love prevails and in which good and evil clash. On one side is The Man at the center of a moral conflict. On the other side are the two archetypal women. The candid country wife represents the innocent, the purity of nature. Whereas the sensual lover personifies the corruption of the modern city and can be traced back to the character of the ‘vamp‘: the stock character of the femme fatale that will be made famous by the noir genre in the early 1940s.

Screenwriter Carl Mayer wrote the screenplay for Sunrise based on Hermann Sudermann‘s short story Die Reise nach Tilsit (The Excursion to Tilsit). Despite some negative reviews from critics at the time, Sunrise today stands out for its unique stylistic value.

In 1929, at the 1st Academy Awards, the movie won three awards: Best Unique and Artistic Picture; Best Actress (Janet Gaynor); and Best Cinematography.

Successful experiments

Murnau is regarded today as one of the major exponents of German Expressionism: an avant-garde German cinema with a revolutionary style that spread between the 1910s and 1920s to deal with the bewilderment and despair of the German people after World War I.

Murnau’s works are especially the result of experimentation. Just like Sunrise which is his first movie shot in the United States. Indeed, Americans produced and photographed the movie. While Germans wrote it, directed it, and handled the art direction (Rochus Gliese). The American influence is also evident in the movie’s canonical Hollywood-style happy ending. In contrast, expressionist movies often end with dark twists or endings. What results is a rather peculiar movie that mixes Expressionism and Realism. For some film theorists, most notably André Bazin, these two movements are opposites. Indeed, according to the French theorist, the elements that characterize expressionism – such as the surreal and distorted sets; the over-emphasized acting; and the excessive use of editing – confer an anti-realistic connotation. But Murnau’s artistry lies precisely in having been able to mix elements seemingly at odds with each other, creating something unique with Sunrise.

The sets, built entirely in the studio, and the skillful use of lights and shadows are reminiscent of Expressionism. And yet, thanks to a combination of technical innovations – such as tracking shots; superimpositions; and the exploitation of perspective games – Murnau managed to give realism to the scenes in Sunrise. As, for example, in the scene in which the protagonists walk down the street in the city.

Heedless of the city traffic, too much in love to notice the rest of the world, they imagine being in the countryside. In the scene, Murnau follows the characters closely with the camera, almost tailing them.

To me the camera represents the eye of a person, through whose mind one is watching the events on the screen. It must follow characters at times into difficult places.

F. W. Murnau, “The stuff of dreams”The Guardian

This proximity as well as the camera movements succeed in conveying the characters’ feelings. The outcome of these experiments is the viewer’s complete immersion in the filmic diegesis. The viewers believe that what they are watching is real and not the result of visual manipulation.

Between silent and sound

The release of Sunrise, in September 1927, coincides with a very important moment for cinematography. Just one month later, the official debut of the sound era took place with Alan Crosland‘s movie The Jazz Singer.

Actually, Sunrise is halfway between silent and sound. In the movie, the characters do not speak and there are still captions. The novelty is the use of the Movietone sound system which allows recording sound directly on the same strip of film that records the pictures. Throughout the movie, one can hear a variety of sounds such as traffic noise, storms blowing, and bells ringing.

The use of captions is also very interesting. When The Woman From the City suggests the murder of The Wife, the caption “Couldn’t she get drowned?” appears on the screen. The twist is that the writing sinks, and dissolves on the screen, referring to the idea of drowning.

Sunrise‘s artistic heritage

It is not easy to put Sunrise into a single category due to its complex nature. Certainly, the movie features recurring themes that belong to Murnau’s filmography: the shadow; the dark side; the struggle against oneself; the border between fantasy and reality. But Murnau goes beyond the motif and aesthetics of Expressionism, telling the story of two human beings who rediscover themselves along a path of redemption and forgiveness.

The German director transcends a type of cinematography intended as mere entertainment. Instead, he gives an artistic and symbolic value to the images and creates a true work of art. His movies such as Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922); The Last Laugh (1924); or Faust – A German Folktale (1926) have left posterity an immense creative legacy that laid the foundations for the rise of horror and noir genres.

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