Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Dir. F.W. Murnau

The first silent film I ever saw was Fritz Lang's terrifying, post-apocalyptic Metropolis. Even as a relatively well watched movie enthusiast, I had my reservations about silent films. I figured they'd be slow and methodical; boring and terribly linear. I was proved wrong then and in watching F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans I have been proved wrong again. What the great silent films of the teens and twenties lacked in their audio tracks (which hardly lack considering the air progressiveness and sensitivity in the musical scores of both Metropolis and Sunrise) they make up for in their visual inventiveness and superb understanding of dramatic structure. One might argue that the medium does not dictate the quality of a product, and this is true but only to a certain extent. Without being able to communicate through words directly to their audience, actors had to utilize a more theatrical style of acting so that their actions could replace their unheard words. Directors had to paint a crystal clear picture, without precarious over-simplification, so that the viewer didn't spend half the film looking at title cards. Still, the silent era was not all limiting. Directors like Murnau rose to the challenge of making insightful and provocative pictures while pushing the boundaries of visual aesthetics in the formative early years of cinema.

Sunrise is haunting. It is a tale of the corrupting and revitalizing power of love. It is about the triumph of good over evil and the tranquility of acceptance. The film follows a simple farmer's (George O'Brien) initial attempt to murder his wife (Janet Gaynor) in order to run off to the city with another woman (Margaret Livingston), and his subsequent failure to do so. It chronicles his attempts to prove his love for her and repent for his sinful ways. He follows her into the nearby city where the two are swept up in the fervor and rejoicing of a night on the town. Along the way Murnau uses both subtle and radical cinematic tools to present the man and woman as being two apart from the glamor and sophistication of the city. The woman and man both act in simple and naïve ways. The woman shyly avoids the sexual come-ons of a stranger, while the man pays for all his expenses not out of a wallet, but a small change purse. Cinematically, Murnau appropriates a tactic of superimposing two visuals (and in many scenes two disparate audio tracks) on top of one another to further the metaphorical separation of the country and city folk. The city is presented as a sensational, opulent carnival complete with fireworks, roller coasters, music, dancing and noise noise noise that would drive the Grinch, were he present for all of it, fucking crazy. It is absurd to the point of satire. In one particularly disheartening but brilliant scene the city people have the man and woman dance to a “folk tune” after the man successfully captures an escaped and drunken pig. The couple move in a way that is a far cry from the shake and jive of the city's take on the swinging jazz big band era. The funny thing is that while the rift is very real and visible, the man and woman seem to either not notice it, or take no offense to it. I am supposing the latter. The two are in love and as anyone who's really been in love before can tell you: when you're in it you just can't be bothered to give a damn about anything else.

Sunrise is a powerhouse of romance and histrionics. It is paramount piece of dramatic cinema and one of the best of the comparatively short lived silent era. Murnau brings together a wide range of tricks, skills and genuine inspiration to create a perfect pastiche. It is a film whose narrative fluidity is never disturbed by the seismic emotional quakes that occur throughout. It tugs you along by your heart strings and plucks and mutes them tenderly, creating a regular symphony of emotive affections, from bitter to cathartic. The film paints a vivid picture of love and redemption and does so without the pretense that causes so many other films to fail. It is a complex picture of devotion and seduction and how one can counteract the other, but most of all it is a film about appreciating what has always been there for you and never forgetting what attracted you to it in the first place. Sunrise is love in 90 minutes.

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