Director/Coscreenwriter: F. W. Murnau
By Roderick Heath
Early cinema had no shortage of great innovators whose names roll off the tongue of any film lover, but D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau stand as perhaps the signal triumvirate of the medium’s formative influences, with Griffith as grammarian, Eisenstein as architect, and Murnau as alchemist. Murnau had, with Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), made a film nominally within the limits of the Expressionist style laid out by Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang, but pushed those limits outwards and introduced qualities of aesthetic and technical experimentalism into narrative film that soon began to inflect silent cinema far outside German borders. His subtitle for Nosferatu declared the intent and the effect: he made symphonies in cinema. Murnau’s almost endlessly resonating career was tragically short, for only 12 years intervened between the time when the young former assistant to Max Reinhardt made his first movie and his death in a car accident in 1931, just before his last feature Tabu premiered. Murnau’s influence on filmmakers was less how to put together the specific pieces of film to tell a story than as an exponent of “Unchained Cinema,” that is, the use of every element at the director’s disposal to construct an image on screen operating entirely to express a poetic-artistic vision. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, his first American production and one of the defining films of the silent era’s last few glorious years, was to influence filmmakers from the French Poetic Realists to Orson Welles to the New Wave and on and on.
With his legendary run of UFA films like The Phantom (1923), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926), Murnau deepened his skill and fame and pushed his belief in pure visual exposition to radical limits. His dramatic sensibility expanded, too: whereas in Nosferatu he presented everyday humanity as literal prey for the emanations of the psyche, he began to more carefully modulate this theme through characters both insignificant, like the hero of The Last Laugh, and titanic, like Faust, who nonetheless are at the mercy of forces within and without that can destroy them or make them indestructible. When Murnau came to Hollywood to make a project he’d been developing back in Germany, Fox Studios’ money and infrastructure was laid at his feet with a boisterous profligacy only given today to the crassest would-be blockbusters. Murnau and his screenwriting partner Carl Mayer set out to create a little drama imbued however with qualities of fundamental allegory, hence the subtitle of “a song of two humans,” which, on the face of it, it like almost a caricature of high-falutin’ pseudo-art. But Murnau’s confidence in his grasp on the poetic lexicon of early cinema and the genuineness of his empathy for characters at the mercy of larger forces was such that he could transmute them into aesthetic riches. Mayer was a specialist at writing chamber dramas about everyday characters, whereas Murnau was interested in the elemental, yet the duo’s disparate interests complemented each other perfectly for The Last Laugh and Sunrise. Sunrise’s unspecific setting, perched somewhere between country and city, old world and new, past and present, artistic traditions and cinematic immediacy, dramatizes its world in terms of such binaries: most important of all, love and hate are entwined here with an inseparable, dizzying potency.
Sunrise tells the exceedingly simple story of a young couple in a state of crisis in an extraordinary manner. Murnau approaches it in a seemingly oblique fashion, starting off with the streams of holidaymakers who come to the tiny village where the main characters live from a city that is darkening and spreading, to quote The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), one of the many films under Sunrise’s influence. The opening shots, utilising overlays and split-screen effects, mimic the style of the era’s travel posters, as if drawing attention to how commercial visions mould our experience of the world, and in particular, the way the urban affluent see places beyond city limits. The very first shot is practically a film school subject in itself in terms of form and function: the artful sketch of a railway station interior and the lettering scrawled across it again evokes advertising, but also the art of the set designers, a touch that allows Murnau to immediately invoke the artificiality of his vision. As the sketch fades into actual set, with a great glass wall allowing us to see the urban context for a departing train, he consciously introduces the organic quality to the way his artificial world is constructed, binding city, train, and the movement of the train together like a museum display of an engine showing all its moving parts. The organic quality of Murnau’s created world extends to later in the legendary sequence on a trolley car where the country gives way first to the detritus-strewn outskirts, then the industrial belts and finally, the urban heart.
Sunrise’s first act is built around erotic obsession, intrusion and parasitism, so it’s fair that the film starts off with the city penetrating the country like a virus, ready to infect it and leech off it. The attitude of “the Woman of the City” (Margaret Livingstone), the vampy vacationer who stays behind in the rural village, is signalled very early when she has the woman renting her a room clean her shoes while she’s wearing them. The Woman is the embodiment not simply of the flashy thrills of urban modernity, but also of irresponsible sexual excitement itself, and her whistle to alert the Man (George O’Brien) that she’s waiting outside his hovel of a farmhouse is the call of the Siren, a Lorelei or female counterpart to Count Orlock. She fills a void of desire and excitement for the Man because the flush of romance has entirely left his life. The Man’s farm is failing, and the Wife (Janet Gaynor), silently aware of her husband’s infidelity and pain, slogs her way through days and nights and takes care of their infant son in glum distraction. With her old-fashioned hair style and sexless persona, she inhabits the idea of a wife from another era where it scarcely has traction, and the marrow has been sucked out of the Man along with the nobility of labour.
The Man leaves his barely furnished dinner table to venture into the reedy fringes of the lake that separates the village from the tramline to the city. Under the moonlight, he meets the Woman, who, in her black coat, has a panther’s aspect. Murnau matches the vamp’s promises of an electric life in the city with gaudy visions of whirling, expressionistic models and a split-screen shot of a bandleader thrashing time before a battery of horns and a dance floor that churns a storm-swell of sensual thrills. Lust and murder are instant bedfellows, as the vamp suggests to the Man that he arrange for his wife’s death by drowning. The Man flies into a rage at the suggestion and almost strangles her, but this is just prelude to carnal frenzies in the moonlight. The Man’s violence only stokes the Woman’s lust, her lunatic dancing and shimmying drives him to bury his face in her crotch in a scene that’s still amazing for the unrestrained manner in which Murnau presents sex and the death wish with raw, Freudian force. A tracking shot following the couple’s footprints in the mud, the vamp’s hard-heeled shoes showing up as utterly impractical, captures the insidious muck of their actions, as she cuts bulrushes for him to tie together and use as a buoy to keep himself afloat after he tips his boat into the water.
Glazed in Murnau’s nocturne eroticism, the first third of Sunrise suggests the distant prototype of all film noir, with a dash of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. If the Wife is femininity rendered stale and mute, so, too, the Man’s masculinity is contorted and volatile. When the Man returns to his home, carrying the guilty bundle of bulrushes, the Wife pulls a blanket over his sleeping form with a care that’s sublime, and when he seems the next day to reach out to her, she’s all too willing to believe he’s coming back to her. The build-up to the Man’s aborted attempt to kill his wife is prolonged when the family dog senses evil in the air and jumps aboard their rowboat, forcing the Man to turn back and take the dog inside. The Wife’s buoyant mood sinks in sensing, but not quite realising, her husband’s nihilistic mood, a mood that finally shows itself when he rises to do the deed, stiff and hunched, arms straight at his sides, like Orlock in Nosferatu But his wife’s terror brings the man back to his senses. He chases after her when, after they reach the shore, she flees onto a trolley, and the two journey into the city barely aware of anything except their own mutual horror and shame.
Much of silent cinema tends to look old—feel old—in a fashion deeper than mere technological modishness: through so much of it there is the incidental depiction of a world rapidly changing. For instance, all those Keystone Kops chase scenes depict a Los Angeles being built, and the shifts in fashion take us from the fading of Edwardian gentility into the sleekness of the Jazz Age within a decade, reminding us that the golden age of silent cinema came at a time when the world made a definitive shift into the one that, more or less, we still live in, but people still cast glances over their shoulder. Cinema of the time also had an eye toward a world beyond American borders: a huge proportion of the population in that time had been born overseas, many in places where the city depicted in the film was as exotic as and equivalent to the new country they came to. The other truly great depiction of marital pain in the new urban age from this time, King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), seems amazingly contemporary because it’s keenly attuned to the pulse of a purely modern, industrial city’s rhythms and realities. Sunrise operates in a different fashion, trying to be universal and timeless, even whilst still describing the world in which it was made. Murnau’s work, with one eye constantly back on a mythic past and the other on an oppressive present, feels like a barometer for the age, and the film’s elemental conceptualism emphasises all this: at its heart it’s a love story, yes, but it’s also about the way people are defined by place and time, and how they also might escape that definition. Just the same as the Man is beset by outsized moments of despair, rage, joy and sensual frenzy, Murnau’s movie operates according to the same bipolar spirit, swinging between poles of menace and anguish, and freewheeling ebullience and liberation. Sunrise, in its way, is a cinematic equivalent of one of Dostoyevsky’s characterisations, embodying and encapsulating multiple impulses and the way variations on the same basic feeling can draw one in diametrically opposed directions.
When the Man and Wife reach the city, however, they find a temporary release from the things that have nearly destroyed them both. Far from being entirely populated by people like the vamp, the city proves as alive with variety and human quality as anywhere else. Here buildings take on the outlook of alien embassies, and human visages are menacing and magnificent all at once. Sunrise, once it reaches the city, isn’t all that great a distance from the films of Chaplin and Keaton in its wry, observant take on individual quirks, from tipsy waiters to comically presumptuous lotharios to photographers who take secret delight in the unruly romanticism of their subjects, and its feel for the individuals contending with an almost-overwhelming new world. Murnau repeatedly makes a gag of situations that seem momentarily threatening, but prove eventually to be all right, as when the Man and Wife get frantic over thinking they’ve knocked the head off a classical statuette belonging to the photographer, not realising that it never had a head, and when an alarm over not being able to pay the bill in a swanky nightclub proves only momentary, as the Wife reveals she’s stashed some funds away for a rainy day. Even the finale renders the same basic idea on an epic and urgent key. Murnau’s visual excitement never gets in the road of his essential material, but rather dovetails with its richly conceived, poetic intensity. When the wife gets off the tram, still dazed, the husband grabs her and swings her through the traffic, constantly in danger of being knocked down; once the pair reconnects, they drift through the traffic with a weightless evanescence, and shift realities back into a pastoral setting before coming back to reality, where their kissing is holding up a river of traffic.
If Sunrise is taken too literally, it could be construed as a portrait in pathology, with the Man’s wild swings between ardour and homicidal feeling the stuff of horror tales. In context, however, it’s a virtually metaphysical portrait of how terrifyingly close such intense emotions are. It’s momentarily bracing to note that Murnau, gay and very Prussian, was one of the cinema’s great portrayers of grand, erotic passion and emotional immediacy, but then again, stereotypes never lasted long with him. The Man’s swing from cyborg-like fixation in the boat scene to crumbling, guilty mess sees the male and female roles reverse, the Wife holding power of life and annihilation in her hands and whose understanding of his emotional fatigue has a maternal element. The crucial scenes of the whole film comes when the pair, still bleary and shell-shocked from the evil morning, stumble into a church, where the spectacle of another couple’s wedding provides catharsis for them, repeating compositions of the man’s earlier tussles with the Woman as he buries his face in her belly, but with completely different emotional meanings. This scene segues into Murnau’s best joke, as our couple emerges from the church like they’re the ones who have just been married, to the bewilderment of the waiting folk outside. It’s both amusing and fittingly alarming then when, as the Man gets a shave, he’s hovered over by a manicurist who evokes the Woman and the Wife is bugged by a moustachioed letch who tries a bit too forcefully to chat her up, stealing one of the flowers the Man had given her. The Man, brushing off the manicurist, rises from his seat, unfolds a pocket knife and, with a triumphal flourish of reclamation and resurgent power, hacks the flower from the stranger’s lapel.
Of course, the film’s diptych of female types, blonde Madonna and vulpine brunette Whore, is reductive, but it does offset the Man, who combines violently opposing temperaments common to all men but stoked to fever pitch in him—just as Murnau had earlier in Nosferatu and The Phantom, and would again in City Girl (1930), presented similarly internally conflicted female characters. Gaynor, who herself won Best Actress in the 1927 Oscars for three performances (the other two were in Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven and Street Angel), was used by the directors for her capacity to seem limpid yet luminous, whilst suggesting a less elfin Lillian Gish. O’Brien, mostly a Western actor who much later would star in two of John Ford’s Cavalry trilogy, is a fearsome physical performer, and when he and Gaynor come alight, it’s magic.
The process of the couple’s reconciliation is completed in a gigantic nightspot, memorably depicted on the exterior as a gigantic roulette wheel. There the Man becomes a momentary hero with his simple farmer’s fearlessness in hunting down a prize pig that escapes from the neighbouring sideshow. This sequence is a stream of hilarious vignettes of eccentric, flaky, sexy, ludicrous humanity, culminating as our couple is cheered on in performing the “peasant dance” in a display of deft physicality and pure partnership that delights the city crowd. Again this scene straddles worlds: for Germans Murnau and Mayer, it simply evokes the immediate reality of the national culture and the intrusion of the rural populace upon the urban. In the context of an American movie, the idea of a “peasant dance” evokes the immigrant experience, and at least for me, the curiously similar dancing styles often exaggerated in the Disney Silly Symphonies, which drew their inarguable popularity from aiming precisely at the nexus of audiences who covered a colossal range of cultural references. Simultaneously, the dance resolves what has been schismatic—city and country, male and female, fun and marriage, the world of two and the world at large, new and old.
Whilst the rural environment that the Man and Wife come from is a world of primal environs and singular, transcendent emotions, the city is a place of synergies, frippery, shallow wonders, and real ones, too. Perhaps the only other film that communicates the joy of rediscovering the love in a pained relationship as authentically as Sunrise is Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1951), a film that is in many ways a temperamental opposite: Rossellini’s intimate, ironic realism illuminates the inside of its characters through the tropes of the world as found rather than reordering the world. Sunrise’s finale offers up melodrama, as natural forces as immutable as the emotional ones seen throughout the film endanger the Man and Wife as they sail back to their village. Plot motifs converge with cunning symbolism as the Man gives the bundle of bulrushes that was supposed to save his life to his Wife just before their boat is capsized, an act of perfect charity, though the Man is washed ashore while the Wife is left to drift in the lake under the steadily disintegrating bundle: when the Man and fellows from town return to the becalmed lake, they only find drifting rushes leading the Man to believe the worst, and the vamp believes he’s pulled off the murder.
Murder indeed almost happens, as the Man this time comes out in reply to her whistle to throttle her almost to death, only to be saved by Murnau’s use of a gigantic close-up. More specifically, a gigantic close-up shot of the couple’s maid (Bodil Rosing) shouting out that the wife has been found alive, saving the femme fatale in the nick of time. But the sense of technique, the sheer go-for-broke feeling of Murnau’s employment of Rosing’s face, is inescapable, the purest distillation of form and function he can offer. Murnau follows it up with an equally perfervid close-up of the Wife, long hair at last unfurled, awakening in bed to the man’s kiss, as the pair dissolves in a beatific air. It’s a moment where the opposites in Murnau’s vision of the universe finally melt away, and the carnal becomes spiritual.