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Sunday, June 15, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Director: F.W. Murnau
Starring: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

To call Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans simply a film is to do it an injustice. This is poetry in motion, a graceful and haunting gift to anyone who loves the art of filmmaking. Even today, with technology so far advanced from what F.W. Murnau had to work with, it is rare to see a film that moves so fluidly and with such ease. This beautiful, atmospheric film is a must-see for any movie lover.

The plot of the film is straight forward. The characters are the Man (George O’Brien) and his Wife (Janet Gaynor, who won the first Academy Award for Best Actress for this film), and a Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). The story takes place in the countryside where the Man is a farmer and has fallen under the spell of the Woman, who wants him to kill the Wife so that they can run off together. “Spell” is the only way to accurately describe their relationship. The film begins with the Woman creeping near the couple’s home and whistling to the Man. He stands as if in a trance and follows her out to the woods. The scene that follows him through the woods to his meeting with the Woman is breathtakingly beautiful, one of many examples in the film of Murnau freeing the story from the conventions of contemporaneous filmmaking and letting it move. The Woman plants her idea in the Man’s head. He’s horrified at first but quickly acquiesces. He will kill the Wife so that he and the Woman can be together. He takes the Wife on a boat ride (another beautifully shot scene) and attempts to kill her but can’t bring himself to do it. She flees and he chases her, trying to convince her that it was all a mistake. They spend time together in the city and fall in love once again. This sequence is the most charming of the film, alternating between romance and comedy. Happy once again, they return to the country where tragedy strikes – the circumstances and resolution, I won’t reveal.

This is a very simple story, but it’s the way that the story is presented to us that makes this film brilliant. Murnau creates a mood here, not only through the seeming weightlessness of his camera and the tone set by the cinematography, but also through the inter-titles which, though spare, contribute a great deal to the style of the film. When The Woman suggests that the Man kill his Wife, it isn’t shown to us with a flat title, but rather she suggests that he drown his wife and the words run down the screen like water. Murnau also seems to use all the technology at his disposal in order to let the film glide from one moment to another. In one sequence the Man and the Wife are crossing the street, the shot dissolves to them walking through a woodland and then dissolves back to the street where the Man and Wife are kissing and bringing traffic to a stop. The ways that Murnau finds to engage us in the world on screen and convey the changing relationships of the film are wonderfully innovative from both a technical and an artistic standpoint.

I know people who shun silent films like the plague because they’ve convinced themselves that these films will be hard to follow (I usually find that these same people claim that films shot in black and white make things on screen more difficult to distinguish, a notion I find ridiculous), but that idea really couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a film that is better for not having dialogue because to have the characters speak to each other would spoil the dreamlike quality of the way the narrative unfolds. The dialogue would perhaps ring false, too sentimental, and therefore drag the film down; but freed from dialogue, the film is able to soar above what words would convey and present the emotions at play – desire, jealousy, love, fear, remorse – with an urgency and intensity that remains undiluted. There are many films that are great but flawed. Sunrise is a film that is perfect. A truly unqualified masterpiece.

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