Friday, March 11, 2011

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

USA, 94 minutes, silent
Director: F.W. Murnau
Writers: Hermann Sudermann, Carl Mayer, Katherine Hilliker, H.H. Caldwell
Photography: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss
Music: Willy Schmidt-Gentner, R.H. Bassett, Carli Elinor, Emo Rapee, Hugo Riesenfeld
Editor: Harold D. Schuster
Cast: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

There's a throwaway line in The Social Network that I haven't been able to get out of my head since the last time I saw it. In full-blown triumphalist mode, Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker exults that everybody used to live in the country and then they moved to the city. Now they're moving to the Internet.

To the degree that The Social Network is about everybody moving to the Internet—a debatable point (but, at the very least, a movie somebody should probably make)—then to that degree the silent film classic Sunrise is about everybody moving from the country to the city.

Actually, make that Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, the proper name of the thing and a more reliable predictor of what you're in for when you sit down to watch it. Overheated, packed with detail and incident and effect and texture, told almost entirely visually—and doing so far better than most silent films—it tells a story of a married couple from the country who almost lose one another to infidelity, then rediscover their deepest connections on a day trip to the city, and then almost lose one another again, this time to a storm on their way home. The film lasts a little more than 90 minutes, and covers some 36 hours: a night, a day, and a night.

The theme of the country versus the city is a constant drumbeat all through. The couple, designated only as The Man (played by George O'Brien) and The Wife (played by Janet Gaynor), work a failing farm somewhere in America as they attempt to raise their baby. As the movie begins The Man is sneaking out of the house of an evening to tryst with his lover, The Woman From the City (played by Margaret Livingston), who is a cigarette-smoking, mirror-adoring brunette dressed like a flapper, compared to The Wife, a demure, prim blonde with her hair in a bun as she prepares the family's supper.

The rendezvous features some of director F.W. Murnau's most energized and visionary filmmaking in a picture full of such fare, with a famous long tracking shot that follows The Man across a field in moonlight (the moon itself an absolutely gorgeous element) and through a tangle of woods to meet The Woman at the edge of a swamp. They make love and plot to murder The Wife. This is all just the first 20 minutes or so of a picture that is meticulously plotted, and here is where the roller-coaster ride starts in earnest.

All through, it's a pure pleasure in which to immerse oneself. Whether it's the elaborate tracking shots, the process work that superimposes images atop one another (both post-production and in-camera), or an original score that does something very similar with sound effects and popular music themes—evincing a mash-up sensibility well ahead of its times, the score often reminded me of the work of Charles Ives, not just in its swirling confusions of fragments of melody and sound but also in its purely abstracted Americanness. The picture is constantly seductive, charged with momentum, deeply engaging, and often very beautiful.

The endlessly inventive Murnau appears to have never stopped looking to achieve the telling effect, even in the smallest ways. One example: in the early sequences, when The Man is still committed to murdering The Wife, Murnau had O'Brien's shoes fitted out with heavy weights, which inevitably lend his movements, as when he stands up in the boat and steps toward her, a ponderous, slow-moving finality that underscores at once his determination, his guilt, and the terror of the moment.

Yet for all its busy production elements (which remain, always, in the service of the story and its themes, and are never flashy for their own sake) it's as often still and simple, unveiling stunning shots as a matter of routine: the church interior in wide, with the shaft of light coursing down onto the wedding and the couple in the back in shadow. Or The Man standing perfectly framed in a doorway confronting The Woman From the City just before he attacks her, toward the end. Or the scenes of the boat washed up ashore following the storm and The Man desperately calling for The Wife, his voice replicated on the soundtrack as a long lonesome note from a French horn.

Murnau even boldly drops sound out entirely when it suits him, letting the images and the space of the silence carry the moment, as when The Man is walking with The Wife down a city sidewalk, still trying desperately to comfort her. Letting the sound drop away in that moment seems to me even more effective than the kind of iris shots so favored by other directors of the era (notably Griffith), or zooms in later eras, emphatically calling a detail to our attention even as the narrative momentum moves forward unimpeded.

And the city/country thing? I should point out that as categorically as Sunrise appears to take its stance against the city, as a kind of swampy wasteland of immorality and debauchery, and in favor of the country as the estate of rectitude and all that is right and good, you will notice how the actions of the story actually tend to undercut that. Practically everything good here happens in the city—and most of the bad in the country. Even as Murnau explicitly waves people off of the city, implicitly he seems to be encouraging anyone's ideas of moving there. By all the evidence here, it's safer to live in the city.

Overwrought and stark—more or less the givens of Expressionism, the tradition out of which the 19th-century German-born Murnau was working—but nonetheless entirely affecting, with a sweep and momentum almost irresistible, a fully realized story that takes us inexorably from point to point to point, whether pitting city against country or love and fidelity against hedonism, the highs of Sunrise are genuinely felt, the lows blackly galvanizing, and all of it remarkably done. It is always a glory to look at and listen to and absorb. It reaches at all levels. Funny now, perhaps, to think that it was characterized at the time, in explanation of its box office failure, as a "woman's picture." On the other hand, I suppose that's fair enough, all things considered.

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