Wednesday 27 June 2012

Sunrise (1927)

Recently ”The Actor” showed a modern audience how much communication silent actors can do with their expressions and how a director can tell an even complicated story without sound. 85 years ago this technique was mastered to perfection by F.W. Murnau.

“Sunrise” was the peak of silent movies. Talkies were coming and with the notable exception of Chaplin nobody would make silents anymore, at least not in Hollywood. But in that grand finale the silent art form reached a pinnacle which is awesome even today.

A temptress from the city has moved to a village and caught in her net a farmer. It is breaking him apart, he cannot get free of her and he is in misery.

The farmer has a lovely wife and an infant child, but the temptress convinces him to drown her so they can get away to the city together. The wife is certainly aware that he has something going on, but is very happy that he is taking her for a boat ride. Out there on the lake he almost go through with it, she realizes what is going on and he realizes that he still loves her and breaks off the attempt and instead rows the boat toward the city.

The damage is done and she tries to flee from him. She is not successful but he has a hard time winning her back. He succeeds however and they have a blast in town.

On the way home however… no I should not reveal that here, only to say that the ending is high drama.

The demons are so visible in the farmer that we feel it too. His is not trivial misery. He is really being torn apart. The reactions; happiness, fear, pain, laughter, the entire register is so lived out that they tell the story almost without subtitles. We do not need them and those that are there are often more to effect then explanation. This is the work of a true master with actors that know their craft.

It could so easily become melodramatic and feel overacted, and well, I suppose it is overacted, but it feels very convincing.

There are three phases to the mood of the story. The dark opening with the almost visible demons, light and shadow and a gloomy score, the bright and gay middle part in the city and then the dark drama at night on the lake. This is perfectly made.

My only problem is the attempts at making the happy stage in the city comical. Those almost slapstick parts seem out of place in this movie and it could have been toned down without losing the gaiety of this day in town.

Another thing when you start thinking about it (always dangerous); it does seem a bit strange that the farmer would want to leave his pretty, sweet wife for that spider from the city. I cannot help thinking that he is a bit of a jerk.

During the movie I was wondering about the title. At the end I realized that it referred to rebirth, which was a fitting symbol for the story, but hardly a fitting for a movie that marked the ending of an art form.



  1. It seems, across the board, that most people find the city sequence a little clunky. So you're definitely not alone on that one!

    During the movie I was wondering about the title. At the end I realized that it referred to rebirth, which was a fitting symbol for the story, but hardly a fitting for a movie that marked the ending of an art form.

    Very nice observation. Very sad that silent film peaked the very year it was ending.

    1. Thank you very much. Maybe an odd comparison: 10 years ago the old cathode-ray television peaked in their twilight with monstrously big sets, fantastic resolition and colours and all the whistles and bells. and then they were all gone, replaced by flat screens and nobody would dream of getting a cathode ray televison. An entire tecnique washed out. I don't know if the analogy hold entirely, but for some years after that change I prefered the old sets rather than the new ones the same way that the late silents are preferable to the early talkies.

  2. Janet Gaynor, along with Greta Garbo, was one actress who could transition from silent to sound pictures because she was a good actress. What makes this film great, however, is its cinematography--along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Sunrise ranks right up there as the greatest filmed silents ever.

    1. This is the only movie I ever saw with Janet Gaynor, so I do not know about her sound transition, but certainly she is contributing to a great film. This is on my top 5 of silents, though the exact position is undecided.