Director: F.W. Murnau

(U.S.A.| 1927. Black and white. 115 mins.)

The re-release of F.W. Murnau’s 1927 American masterpiece in a properly restored version is a real cause for celebration. Murnau was one of the towering geniuses of silent cinema and was recognised as such in the 1920s, when films like Nosferatu (1922) and The Last Laugh (1924) stunned audiences, critics and filmmakers alike. He was one of the key figures in developing the basic language of cinematic expression in a body of work that combined elements from the other arts as well as pioneering techniques that were unique to film. A highly educated and cultured man, he used his extensive knowledge of painting, theatre and literature to enrich the cinema and continued to develop his aesthetic ideas right up to a premature death in 1931.
It’s a critical commonplace to speak of Murnau as one of the leading lights of the German Expressionist movement, but his work cannot be contained within such an aesthetic straightjacket. This is very evident if one compares a textbook example of cinematic Expressionism like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) with Nosferatu or The Last Laugh. While Caligari now looks hopelessly academic and static, Murnau’s films still bristle with atmosphere and movement. His pioneering use of the moving camera, especially in The Last Laugh, is one reason why he was invited to Hollywood to make Sunrise for Fox.
Assembling a talented team of writers, designers and cinematographers drawn from his former German associates as well as Hollywood’s finest, Murnau was given complete freedom by the studio and succeeded in making what is unarguably one of the supreme achievements of silent cinema. Sunrise combines the best of European and American traditions. Although set in America, the script was adapted by Carl Mayer from Hermann Sudermann’s novel A Trip to Tilsit, and its European origins are apparent throughout. It’s a simple fable that pits true love against the temptations of the flesh. A vamp (Margaret Livingston) seduces a young married farmer and persuades him to murder his wife and join her for a hedonistic life in the city. But the distraught husband (George O’Brien) can’t bring himself to kill his sweet wife (Janet Gaynor) and the married couple celebrate their renewed happiness by themselves enjoying the attractions of the big city before tragedy threatens on their return journey to the country.
Murnau stages this wildly romantic and melodramatic material with such emotional commitment and dazzling technical skill that the film transcends the sentimental to become a work of overwhelming poignancy and unsurpassed visual poetry. Even if you can resist the film’s emotionalism, there is no denying Murnau’s staggeringly inventive and groundbreaking use of the artifice and technology of cinema. In its day, Sunrise set new standards by demonstrating the expressive powers of lighting, set design, camera movement, composition and editing.
The whole film is carefully structured around a series of oppositions: sunrise/sunset, day/night, corruption/purity, city/country. Thematically, it harks back to Nosferatu in its preoccupation with the idea that nature and sexuality pose a threat to civilised man’s finer feelings. The couple in Sunrise are strangely asexual and child-like when in each other’s company, and Murnau had actor George O’Brien weighted down with heavy boots to give him a lumbering appearance as he journeys to meet the vamp. It was only in his last film, the semi-documentary Tabu, that Murnau’s couple are fully sexual, and the threat comes not from a dark stranger but a sinister father figure.
Made as a silent movie, Sunrise was released with a musical score just weeks before Warners unleashed The Jazz Singer. It was an artistic triumph (even winning a batch of the first ever Academy Awards) but a commercial disappointment for an expensive production. Murnau wasn’t granted the same degree of control on his subsequent Hollywood films and departed in disappointment to make Tabu as an independent production. He wasn’t to live long enough to see Sunrise assume its rightful place in cinema history. At least this magnificent restoration, which was carried out by a number of archives, ensures that we and future generations can appreciate what is surely one of the most beautiful films of all time.

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