(1927) dir. F.W. Murnau
viewed: 02/14/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
I’d long wanted to see F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, a film that is often cited as the greatest film of the Silent Era, and perhaps one of the greatest films ever made. High praise indeed, but it has been pervassive, certainly, this praise, over time throughout institutions, critics, and personal opinions. And as the second of three films that I saw at the Castro this day, I was more than ready to see it.
I’d watched a few other Murnau films of late: Faust (1926) and The Last Laugh (1924), two other significant, arguably masterpieces from Murnau’s German production. Still, Sunrise is something quite amazing and beautiful. In some ways, it’s hard to relate exactly.
As in The Last Laugh, the story is most powerfully evoked without intertitles, simply through the narrative driven by the visual action and visual storytelling. It’s the kind of beauty of narrative that one is always instructed when writing to “show, not tell” when relating story. And the imagery and the cinematography are stunning. Again, as in The Last Laugh, the camera moves in such powerful ways, innovating in ways that are harder to grasp today since these are all now part of cinematic grammar, but it’s not just the innovation but the actual execution and implementation of these devices — they are commanding.
The story is a simple yet classic one. In a small village, a young farmer is tempted away by a seductress who comes from the city. She enthralls his heart and then suggests that he murder his wife and come away with her. Tortured by the decision, the farmer takes his loving, idealized wife on a boat, planning to drown her. And he almost does, only at the last minute dissuaded by her prayers. Once back on shore, the woman tries to run away, ultimately catching a tram into the city. The man, who realizes his guilt and mistake, is redeemed in a church and tries to win back the trust and love of his wife through a day and night in the city. Through their escapeades and adventures they are redeemed. But a storm brews on their trip back across the lake and the wife is thought drowned.
I don’t need to tell you the whole story. But it’s a story of love and redemption. And it’s beautiful. Intensely moving. George O’Brien, as “the man”, I found intensely powerful, acting with his face and his whole of his form. His internal torture through love and lust and love, duty and regret, everything is evoked through his entire form. The film won a unique Oscar at the first Academy Awards. The film is utterly unique.
The opening sequence, the seduction, the town, the scene in the weeds and moonlight, is stunning, aesthetic, amazing.
Perhaps, this is something that is more easily appreciated by seeing it with one’s own eyes. Though the film has this reputation, making it have to live up to a reputation, an ideal, an ultimate of cinema, how one approaches it is of unique experience and opinion. And those who are not already open to the silent film could be challenged by it as well.
But I support the chorus of appreciation for Murnau and Sunrise. I think it’s an amazing film, certainly one of the most moving that I have seen. And beautiful. Masterful.