Released in 1927 at the tail end of the silent era, Sunrise was the first American film made by famed German director F. W. Murnau. It was a critical success and won three of the very first Academy Awards (Best Actress, Best Cinematography and a special category called Most Unique and Artistic Picture) but was a commercial flop, as befits a unique and artistic movie. Subtitled “A Story of Two Humans,” it tells the tale of a farmer (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor) and their near-fatal estrangement and rather quick reconciliation.
Considered by some to be a perfect film, or at least a perfect silent film, its odd structure makes the film dramatically uneven. The country farmer, besotted by a vamp from the city, decides to drown his wife; but at a crucial moment, he comes to his senses and realizes he still loves her. It plays like a climatic sequence, but it’s actually the opening of the film. Afterward, the wife, understandably spooked, flees to the big city, the husband following her. There, during a series of vignettes they rekindle their old love and renew their marriage vows. What follows is a trip home by boat during a violent storm, which may or may not lead to the wife ironically drowning after all.
The middle of the film is dramatically inert and filled with dated comedy relief bits, but it really hardly matters. With Murnau, the importance of the visuals trumps mere storytelling. His use of deep focus, multiple exposures, graceful dolly and crane shots added up to a new and advanced film language. This new style was most obvious in the films of Orson Welles and was widely influential in the ’30s, reflected in the works of directors like John Ford, whom one may not necessarily think of as “artistic.”
Murnau was also a primary practitioner of German Expressionism, where the “decor” reflects the character’s state of mind. When O’Brien leaves his wife and child at the farm and slouches through the (obviously set-bound) countryside to rendezvous with the city woman, the fog-shrouded landscape, crooked fences and drooping foliage all reflect his gloomy disorientation — and when he meets her, the gloom is pierced by a bright moon, a symbol of his ambivalence and euphoria. Sometimes the lighting will change in the middle of the scene (though preceded by a brief cutaway shot), as if clouds were lifting or descending over the characters’ heads.
Throughout the film, one gets the sense of guiding intelligence shaping the visual details of each scene. That alone puts Murnau in the pantheon of great filmmakers. Aside from being a technical marvel, Sunrise is also a beautiful film, dreamlike and extraordinary.
Showing at 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 27, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].