Released in 1927, the year same Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length film to feature synchronised speech, which heralded the coming of ‘talking pictures’, German émigré F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise is one of silent cinema’s last gasps of greatness. The film was the first American film directed by Murnau, perhaps more noted for his earlier German horror film Nosferatu (1922), and won an Academy Award at the first awards ceremony for ‘Unique and Artistic Picture’ (that award never reappeared, instead the Academy decided to just award the ‘Outstanding Picture’ (now known as ‘Best Picture’) award in subsequent years). The film’s presentation at the Royal Northern College of Music was accompanied by a live score improvised and performed by French organist Thierry Escaich.
The film (subtitled A Song of Two Humans) is a melodrama in the truest sense: a drama with music. The plot focuses on a farmer who is unhappy with his marriage being seduced by a woman from the city who encourages him to sell his farm and kill his wife so he can start anew with her in the city. After he struggles with his conscience and doesn’t go through with the attempted murder, his wife flees to the city closely followed by her husband. Away from the farm, they rediscover their love for one and another and are given another chance at happiness, until a violent storm threatens to tear them apart.
While the plot may be relatively straightforward, Murnau is more concerned with using it as a way to push the visual storytelling boundaries of cinema up to that point. There are sweeping tracking shots through the hustle and bustle of the city, through the small farming community, and most strikingly of all, through the moonlight lakeside where the farmer meets the city woman, with the shadows accentuating the heavy footsteps of the man as he is drawn towards this siren. Elsewhere, Murnau uses techniques to portray the conflict within the farmer’s mind, when he awakes the following morning and begins to doubt whether he can murder his wife by drowning her on the lake, the woman from the city appears behind him like a ghost, holding him, before appearing all around him. With Murnau having worked in Germany during the explosion of the post-war Expressionist art movement, such an externalisation of the internal workings of the mind should come as no surprise within this film. Sunrise also features flashback scenes, dream sequences and specially designed inter-titles which again pushed the envelope as to what had been seen up to that point – when the city woman suggests the farmer’s wife gets drowned, the speech inter-title sinks down with a watery effect.
As the film is silent, the acting is somewhat larger than what modern audiences are accustomed to as there is no spoken dialogue to assist with conveying the characters emotions. Nevertheless, George O’Brien certainly does a sterling job as the conflicted farmer, especially in the first part of the film where his emotional burden is reflected in his hunched, slow gait (his slow, menacing walk towards his wife before his attempt to drown her must surely have influenced Boris Karloff’s famous portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 film version of Frankenstein). As his wife, Janet Gaynor gives a nuanced performance and was rewarded by winning the first ever Best Actress Academy Award as a result. Once the emotional turmoil of the film’s first half is resolved and the film focuses on the farmer and his wife enjoying being with each other, Gaynor’s expressions of happiness can’t help but lift the mood of anyone who sees them.
When it was originally released, Sunrise came with a synchronised musical soundtrack (further evidence of the technology advancing to incorporate sound with moving images). Thierry Escaich’s improvised score provided a different experience to seeing the film on DVD (for instance) where the original score accompanies the film. Escaich’s score for organ gave characters their own motif (the one for the city woman was especially memorable, with a hint of uneasiness beneath the glamour) and helped to heighten the dramatic moments as well as lift the more humorous scenes (including one of a pig escaping into a kitchen and getting drunk on wine), and providing a sweeping underscore to the romantic moments. The most striking moment in the score came as the farmer was dreaming of the waves of the lake as he considered the possibility of drowning his wife: the organ produced light notes which gave the impression of water dripping.
For a film that is ninety-one years old, Sunrise still lifts the spirits and is a hugely enjoyable film. It is the culmination of the cinematic form of the silent era with expressive camera work and technical effects. The screening at the RNCM was a unique chance to experience the film with a new score played as the film’s events unfolded and made for a charming night out.
Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 8/6/18
on - 8/6/18