Silents are Golden: A Closer Look at – Sunrise (1927)
German director F.W. Murnau, probably best known for his horror classic Nosferatu (1922), is also renowned for his masterpiece Sunrise (1927). This beautifully stylized drama about the travails of a young rural couple has universal appeal – its full title is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. More than a few historians have made the case that Murnau’s poetic film is nothing less than the finest silent ever made.
Thanks to the flurry of interest in his artistic 1924 feature The Last Laugh, Murnau was whiled away from Germany by William Fox who offered him a pricey 4-year contract. Fox had been hoping to compete with other big studios and wanted to have the prestige of having a talented European director in his stable. He had also been deeply impressed by Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), an Expressionist masterpiece. Murnau was not only happy to deliver, but also brought a crew of top German screenwriters, cinematographers, designers, etc. along with him. This included Carl Meyer, one of the writers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, (1920), and designer Rochus Gliese, the mastermind behind Sunrise’s elaborate sets. Other European directors had come to work in Hollywood before, but once Hollywood saw what Murnau could do, it would arguably never be the same.
Murnau decided to base his first American film on the story “A Trip To Tilsit” by Herman Suderman. It had its dark elements, and could easily have been treated more cynically by a different director: A young farmer is tempted away from his loving wife by a conniving “vamp” from the city. The vamp wants him to murder his wife and frame it as an accident so they can run off together, and after initial misgivings, he agrees. When the day arrives, however, he’s unable to go through with the murder, and the poor wife flees from him in terror. Deeply remorseful, he follows her and asks for forgiveness. Finally, he wins back her trust, and during a day in the city, they begin to fall in love with each other all over again.
The story has a quasi-fairytale quality, with its unnamed characters known only as “The Man,” “The Wife,” and “The Woman from the City.” The year and the exact setting are unclear since the couple’s clothing looks vaguely Old World while the vamp has on a stylish, all-black outfit. Landscapes are shrouded in fog, and the bright, exciting city has impossibly wide streets. Murnau, accustomed to German Expressionism, wanted Sunrise to be stylized without sacrificing a sense of realism. Thus, the settings are slightly dreamlike, giving the feeling of a remote farm, and the feeling of a city seen by a country couple for the first time.
Ingenious camera and design tricks were key to the dreamlike quality Murnau wanted. The camera appears to float behind George O’Brien during the night scenes in the swamp, a difficult feat to pull off in the days before Steadicam. This was done by simply fastening the camera to tracks that ran in a “t” shape on the studio’s ceiling. Dramatic lighting and in-camera dissolves added to the Expressionist effect and intertitles were used sparingly (the most famous involves the word “drowned,” which wavers and “drips” down the screen).
The famous city set (which cost $200,000) used forced perspective to appear much wider and grander than it was, with the buildings in the background being built much smaller than the ones closer to the camera. Reportedly, Murnau completed the illusion by hiring little people to walk in the background. Numerous cameramen, set designers, filmmakers, and other industry folk came to check out Murnau’s sets and see what the top German talents could do in Hollywood – Sunrise‘s design would be deeply influential. (And the city set would be used in subsequent films, too.) All in all, it took five months to prepare the sets in an era when many Fox films were churned out relatively quickly.
For his leads, Murnau chose George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor. O’Brien had first come to Hollywood to become a cameraman and ended up doing stunt work and bit parts before starring in John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924). Gaynor had also done bit roles before signing with Fox in 1926, and by 1927 was famed for her sensitive, wholesome characterizations. Previously, O’Brien and Gaynor had been paired in the very successful 7th Heaven (1927), which had made them household names. Both would deliver wonderful performances in Murnau’s film, with touches of Expressionism–most evident in O’Brien’s body language early on.
Sunrise was also given a “sound on film” score that added sound effects, enhancing the experience. 1927 was the same year The Jazz Singer was released and is considered the official start to the talkie era. Thus, any use of sound was all the rage. At the New York premiere, Fox’s Movietone documentary shorts preceded the feature and were admired for their “natural sound” almost as much as the feature itself.
While it had highly-publicized premieres (the west coast opening was attended by a number of stars) and attracted many critical accolades, Sunrise only performed modestly at the box office. But its influence would turn out to transcend temporary, monetary gains. Its fluid camera movements and brilliant design inspired many directors, who tried using the Murnau touch in their own films. It was considered the high point of the silent era – an era that was soon about to end.
Its place in cinema history has only grown over the years, often making prestigious“top ten greatest films” lists. In 2012 Sight & Sound ranked it #5. Its timeless appeal has been evident to every generation who gets to experience it–and inevitably, fall in love with it.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.