Sunday, March 04, 2007

F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans (1927) review

Forget about all the scholarly work written on film. Forget the auteur theory, it's crap. All you need to know about film language is in three basic-shots: long-shot (master), medium-shot, and close-shot (reaction). Film's visual-language was still being invented when this film was made. This, F.W. Murnau's crowning-glory, is a sight-to-behold for all true lovers of cinema. So much has been said and written about this masterpiece, that only by watching it can one truly explore its depths. It is a testament to what cinema can--and should--be, as well as what film really should explore: the human-condition. Murnau, through a myriad of photographic-devices, shows us the internal and external-states of our two main-characters, a husband and a wife. In this sense, it is one of the few truly "expressionist" films made in the Hollywood of its day, in 1927.

It is fortunate that Murnau was given a chance to prove what cinema was capable of (when directors are allowed to do their craft, relatively unfettered), and what it could accomplish as a narrative-medium. But he didn't do it all alone. Cinema is a collaborative effort, and without a solid cinematographer, production designer, actors, costumers, etc., you have nothing. Yes, a director pulls it all together, but many elements in a film happen on-accident, or on the suggestion of on-set events and the others involved in the process. Sometimes, reality itself takes-charge, and a good director and crew adapt and hold the insight of all the opportunities that problems bring to a production. Necessity is the mother of invention, and insight is God.


In many ways, we have yet to see any equal of a Murnau of a Lang in our time, and perhaps it would do us all good to take-note of their struggles to achieve their sublime visions on-screen. It has never been easy to make personal films (rarely can they be anything but small), yet I feel strongly that we have only scratched-the-surface since the 1920s. The battle between art-and-commerce continues, and art has fared-badly for over 18-years. However, it appears some openings are becoming evident with the advent of cheap digital cameras and DVD--people always yearn for film that speaks to their lives, which is rarely seen in current Hollywood productions. This has been gradually changing at the margins, and the internet now offers small film-makers a vast new infrastructure of distribution.

And so, we return to films like "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans", which seem refreshing even today in their visual-language, and show us what film can be in the right-hands. Yes, there are double-exposures, in-camera effects, and astonishing tracking-shots that have weathered the time for the era they were made in to now. One thing people miss: there is a possible "Futurist" influence in many of the city-scenarios, with the superimposition of thought-images, traffic, the flowing human-rivers, and the subjective realities--all are experienced at-once by the viewer.


Telling the tale of a man tempted by the city and a woman from there (who trys to induce him into murdering his wife), Murnau was expressing how shocked people were by the explosion of the modern era, the wholesale destruction of traditional rural-values, and how overwhelming and intoxicating it was in the 1920s.This theme is found in Futurist painting, and in their films (though they are usually only viewed by academics). Interestingly, the Futurists had the opposite-reaction: they adored the technology to-the-point of fetishism, and were excited by the emerging modernity. One could call it nihilist, but the world had to change. This was before many of them died in WWI. It seems unlikely that Murnau was unaware of the Futurists and their aesthetics, and I am unaware of anyone noting this in film-studies literature. Amazingly, he does all this without very many title-cards (text)--almost entirely with images.

There is no current edition of this film in the USA on DVD, however, it can be found used online for a decent price from an out-of-print DVD-set deal (one had to send-in the proof-of-purchase tabs). The Fox edition is from a major-restoration, and is definitive, it was not done "on-the-cheap." The negative was destroyed in a 1937 vault-fire at Fox, and is no-longer extant, which is the sad case for a large-percentage of Murnau's films. Many are simply gone forever, though occasional discoveries (like the excellent 1922 "Phantom"--the negative has been found!) do occur. Watching "Sunrise" is like looking at a moving-painting, by a man who was trained to be a fine-arts painter. It is sublime, and modern, yet also cautionary about the temptations of the modern world. What is so great about all this is that almost everything in the film is a set, creating a fairy-tale city and country that is beautiful and unsettling.


Murnau settles-on traditional values in relationships, and notes that people must retain many of them in-order to survive this era. What a visionary he was, a magician of light: illumination is a strong-theme in Sunrise. There is the scene in the swamp at night between the husband and the woman from the city, lit only by an artificial moon. It's a surreal play-of-light that presents us with the ambiguity of the husband in his meeting with the "Woman from the city." We see his dark and light-sides. In Murnau's cinema, light is truth, the illuminator that exposes the underlying realities (just as film is exposed).

The photography by Karl Struss & Charles Rosher is extraordinary, often in low-level light, with some amazing tracking-shots--it's not an innovation as some have contended, however, as these techniques were employed as early as 1915 by Russian director Evgeni Bauer. He is likely the first film-maker to ever do this. Murnau's death in an car-accident in 1931 robbed cinema, but we are still learning-from him today. It should be noted that the film wasn't exactly "silent", but had a music and sound-effects track, a first for Fox at that time. Sunrise won an award for "Unique and Artistic Production", the only-time it was ever given to a production in 1929. Film can be magic.