Director: F. W. Murnau / Scenario: Carl Mayer / Editing: Harold D. Schuster / DP: Charles Rosher
Cast: George O’Brien / Janet Gaynor / Margaret Livingston / Bodil Rosing / Ralph Sipperly
I know the Currents…
F. W. Murnau is no stranger to this parish; his consummate skill as a visual artist, is reflected in an industry-wide desire to preserve his surviving filmography for the enjoyment of all, forever.
On arriving in Hollywood, following a string of definitive silent-films made in his native Germany, this émigré signed with the brash Fox studio, with whom he’d make just three pictures. Sunrise would be the first, the (now-lost) 4 Devils would follow and the trio would conclude with City Girl: another classic I’ll get around to reviewing one day. Released in the UK, under the Masters of Cinema label, Sunrise has been painstakingly restored, then re-mastered from a number of disparate elements.
The version under review here, included a ‘Movietone’ synchronised soundtrack, that featured a stylised musical score and occasional sound effects, but NO dialogue; probably at Murnau’s insistence. The film opened just a month after the game-changing The Jazz Singer, in which Al Jolson revolutionised the picture business forever but, throughout his career, Murnau was unmoved by the advent of the ‘talkie’. Even when he made his last picture Tabu (1931), some three years after the advent of sound, there was no concession.
To Murnau at least, the silent film was the perfect medium for his brand of ‘Expressionist Cinema’; building stories from believable characters whose own ‘expressions’ and physical actions could propel the plot as effectively as any ‘sophisticated’ talkie. What’s more, with the range of subtleties available in a seasoned actor’s performance, you could shoot faster; unencumbered by having to record dialogue, maintain script continuity and so on; problems that still afflict film-makers today. That meant productions could be both shorter and cheaper, allowing studios – and Directors – to deliver more films in a year.
So what of Sunrise? Murnau opens his account with a dramatically-framed shot of a steam locomotive pulling out of a modern steel & glass station, whilst beyond the windows, can be seen bustling road traffic. He’s showing us that whoever’s on this train, is moving away from a world of modernity, speed & convenience; the ‘real world’ in other words, and that they’re bound for something quieter. Simpler. With this device, Murnau is setting-up a contrast, that will likely unfold later.
Our traveller is a single Woman from the City played by Margaret Livingston and Murnau’s contrast pays-off, at our first sight of the rustic fishing village at the end of her journey. We know from the outset that the ‘Vamp’ is a ‘tramp’, thanks to Murnau’s choice of key details: whilst in her room at the plain guesthouse, she smokes and fusses over her choice of outfit and hat, that’s out-of-keeping with the humble surroundings. She even has the landlady shine her shoes; an obviously demeaning insult that does two things: it relays to us, her lack of empathy with her hosts AND it repulses us towards her at the same time, thus making her a villain through one, simple act. Clever.
Apparently on-holiday in this tranquil village, the Vamp’s true purpose, is soon revealed when she steps-out that night. After spying on the habits of the villagers, she ends-up whistling outside a house, like a Siren, calling-out to a passing sailor.
Inside, George O’Brien is The Man. Whatever actual names Murnau had in-mind for these characters, we might only guess. Besides, their names are unimportant when their roles are so archetypical. The whole film, is a living, breathing love-poem. It will – if you’re in the mood – gather you up in its arms and carry you to a place that modern films have all-but forgotten exists…
The Man is torn between running-out to greet the Vamp and loyalty to family, embodied in a dowdy Wife (Janet Gaynor, who’d win the first-ever Oscar for Best Performance by a Leading Actress, for her work in this picture). In her braided blonde curls, she resembles a tightly-wound, sexless Heidi-figure.
Murnau teases-out the Man’s departure as long as he can, before having him relent: showing us – and the Vamp – his silhouette pointing the way to their illicit rendezvous. On meeting the Vamp, the Man exhibits a passion unseen at home. The Vamp now sells the Man on the notion of faking a boating accident and drowning his wife, as a way of selling-up and moving back to the City with her. To seal this murderous vision, Murnau has the Vamp show a montage of beguiling sights and sounds of the City to the Man, that Murnau manages to project ‘onto’ the mist, using its vapours as a makeshift silver-screen. She even suggests stuffing a few sheafs of bulrushes under his clothes, to give him buoyancy after the event…
Murnau’s Expressionist credentials are echoed once again, in the scene where the Man returns home to his bedroom. The set appeared to have been built using skewed, false perspectives, with an upwardly-rising floor, to allow the inclusion of the door, two beds and the leads, in one composite frame. It’s a daring, innovative solution that allows an unbroken take of the Man, shuffle-stumbling towards his own bed, giving scant regard to his wife, sleeping in her own adjacent bed.
Next day, the Man suggests the doomed boat-trip. Leaving the baby with the family’s Maid, he and his Wife set-off, but they haven’t gone far, when their pet dog breaks-free from its chains and gives chase; leaping off the end of the jetty and paddling out to them. Having fished the wet Alsatian from the lake, they return to-shore. While the Man sets-about the dog’s re-confinement, Murnau glances-back at the Wife, to a pensive look of fear on her face, as if she’s realised the dog might’ve sensed something…
Nonetheless, she sits there gamely, while the Man returns and rows them out onto the lake; his energies directed in a furious bout of rowing that puts them far from shore (and prying eyes, one imagines). It’s the moment of truth. The Man ceases to row. He stands. With a sunken, lowered head and hunched shoulders, he advances on her like a Brute; no wonder she flinches. But an off-screen ship’s bell is heard, breaking the spell. Remorseful now, the Man chooses to row-on to the distant shore, as his wife weeps, imagining what he might have in-store for her there…
On reaching land once more, the Wife sprints from the Man’s grip. He chases…
Yet Murnau denies us the dramatic climax he’s been building up to (and has led us to expect). Instead, having run-through a dense pine forest, the couple then arrive at an electric-tram, whose track – if not the very tram – is something like a Deus ex Machina intervention; an artificially-introduced device to get us – and the story – from here to there; the couple from the dreamlike fairytale village to the harsh City.
I found this sequence almost mesmeric, with Murnau using a variety of gradual backdrops beyond its windows, to suggest its transition from countryside to the city. His village design verges on classical European fairytale, in its voluptuous thatched roofs, hand-shaped tiles and organically-rounded wall rendering, so the City’s straight ‘machined’ edges and stark, impersonal forms, form a counterpoint; as if we’re moving between dreams and the ‘real’ world: but which is which?
Like a fish out of water, the wife is unused to the traffic encountered as she leaps from the tram at journey’s end and almost gets herself run-over; in her haste at putting new distance between herself and her husband. It’s telling therefore, that it should now be him, who, whether from remorse or genuine love, protects her from the dangers.
Relations between them only really thaw however, when they gatecrash a wedding ceremony. Murnau uses this as an opportunity for them to recall their own vows. He even shoots them as they leave the church, as if they are the newlyweds: it’s a startling change in their fortunes. Moreover, it challenges our suspension of disbelief, over the Man’s apparent change of heart; a person who, not long before, was looking to drown his Wife, but who, now, appears as giddy as a schoolboy. I went with it, curious to see how one might be reconciled with the other and to what end, as far as Fate was concerned…
A word here, on the lavish city-centre set. At first sight, I imagined this to have been a real place, so big was it, so I was staggered to learn that this was an actual set, built on the Fox lot, just for this picture. Indeed, such was its cost, that Fox producers insisted it was used by many subsequent productions in-lieu of other locations, in order to amortise its cost! On reflection, the things that most impress with Sunrise, is how Murnau was able to use a budget far in excess of anything he’d been granted back in Germany. Sets such as the Village and the City Square are all fully-realised; as the saying puts it: ‘the budget’s all up on-screen’. I was left reeling with the obvious conclusion: that the small section of tramway in the forest – and indeed, the village – had been constructed for just this picture, showing the faith in which Murnau was held by Fox…
A later sequence that brought to mind Murnau’s willingness to embrace the absurd, is in the accidental inebriation of a piglet, newly-escaped from an arcade booth, and tracked down on behalf of the booth-owner, by the Man. Drawing on a theme picked from The Grand Duke’s Finances, in which we saw an indoor steeplechase run by a pack of dogs, this drunk piglet provides comic absurdism to puncture the cloying tone at the right moment; the piglet gives a final laugh for the reunited couple and signals their return home: ‘it’s not going to get any better than this!’. This might be a good place to mention Murnau’s scant use of inter-titles to explain and/or propel plot. When faced with such a bizarre scene, less gifted contemporaries might’ve been tempted to throw-in titles, to ensure their audience ‘got it’, but Murnau was content to let his images – and the performances of his actors – speak for themselves.
Back to the film. They catch the last tram, just before a storm blows-in to town, sending all the revellers running for cover.
Which, just after they re-board their little boat, our heroes will have to do. The irony isn’t lost on the Man, that just when he’s re-found his wife’s affections, the storm might wrest her from him anyway, finishing the intention he had for himself, just that morning, when he wanted her dead…
In fear for their lives, he reveals the concealed bundles of reed and straps them to his Wife. The boat, tossed about like a toy, is duly lost. The Man washes-up at his home shoreline and raises the alarm. As his neighbours go out looking for his wife, the Vamp also wakes and watches proceedings with interest; after all, she believes this is all the Man’s work and that soon he – and his money – will be hers…
Just then, remnants of the bulrushes are found. The Man believes his Wife to be dead. He’s disconsolate now. O’Brien weeps at this point and film historians believe this moment to be the first time a male actor ever cries on-film. From such small moments are legends made…
The Man revisits the Vamp, blaming her influence on the chain of events. He wants her dead, as if in some weird penance and begins strangling her. O’Brien transitions masterfully now, as word comes that his Wife has been found alive, moving from grief-stricken father to overjoyed husband as he casts-aside the choking Vamp and reunite with his True Love; Murnau cutting-away to a grizzled old sailor who’s knowledge of the local tides is as ingrained as salt within his leathery skin.
Sunrise the next day. A cart returns the Vamp to the City as a new dawn rises over the village. The wife wakes to see her husband and child. They are a family, once more.
There are few faults with Sunrise. Yes, the plot is wafer-thin and, ninety years-on, the drunk piglet might be an unfortunate artistic choice, but I’m sure it had them rolling in the aisles back then; at the end of it all, I’m no judge.
A fable of true love, obsession and redemption then, Sunrise is as accessible today as in 1927. It’s told by a master of the form; superior in both its technical excellence and in the performances wrung from its players. In short, it remains a Masterpiece. Little wonder that F. W. Murnau was so feted by Hollywood’s players after this amazing debut.
As an audience, we are compelled to watch, simply because we identify with so much of what we’re seeing.
Almost without realising, we’ve been hypnotised into believing Murnau’s dream, just as we did when watching his earlier Nosferatu, for example.
When it’s threatened by the storm, we are threatened. When there’s resolution at the end, so are we calmed. This is pure cinema and it’s no wonder that so many influential polls have placed Sunrise as one of the best films ever made, let alone one of the best silents…
In difficult times, when evidence of our underlying decency and capacity for love is tested, the DVD of Sunrise should be available on-prescription.
Vamp: Sell your farm. Move with me to the City!
Man: And my wife?
Vamp: Couldn’t she be drowned?